Independent in All Things, Neutral in Nothing

Sources of Bureaucratic Legitimacy, Part II

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In part I, I argued that Max Weber’s “sociology of legitimacy” helps us understand the authority claims of modern bureaucracies.  Weber argues that authority generates itself by social construction founded upon universally accepted norms and beliefs.  This culminates in three main forms of legitimacy—traditional, charismatic, and legal authority—and corresponds best to affective and rational social action.  However, Weber’s theory is insufficient to explain how legitimacy pervades the public consciousness, becoming part of an intersubjectively or interdependently shared structure of public beliefs.

Significantly, authority is a public claim to legitimacy; therefore, the public must perforce recognize authority claims.  Public recognition is imperative for the successful function of authority.  Authority claims are necessarily public, and hence social.  In addition to Weber, then, British sociologist, Anthony Giddens’ “sociology of modernity” lends a helping hand in explaining modernity’s non-coercive legitimation of bureaucratic authority and trust in expert systems.  The authority of expert systems comes in many forms, according to Giddens: due to technical expertise, perceived superiority, trusteeship, or moral pre-eminence.

Giddens’ “sociology of modernity” contends that we can characterize modernity by “disembedding mechanisms” that “lift out” social relations from their local contexts and which depend upon trust or “a form of faith…in technical accomplishment or professional expertise.”  Trust that bureaucracies will deliver proper services is a manifestation of the precise link between faith and confidence “in the correctness of principles of which one is ignorant.”  Cultivation of such expertise is essential to the construction of Weberian rational-bureaucratic authority.  Giddens’ “form of faith” transcends this Weberian rational-bureaucratic authority because it manifests itself as part of the consciousness of the individual subject as something akin to faith.  Even though Karl Polanyi’s famous book The Great Transformation was an analysis of the historically novel development of what he calls “market society,” his finding that “market economies can function only in market society” is analogous to modern bureaucracy: bureaucratic forms of government can only function in bureaucratic societies.

The value of bureaucracy clearly rests on confidence.  As Giddens shows, it rests on blind faith, and very little else.  Thus, Giddens ponders, “Why do most people most of the time trust in practices and social mechanisms about which their own technical knowledge is slight or non-existent?”  It provides the believer and individual agent with a powerful sense of “ontological security,” he submits, necessary for proper action (in some cases).  Nevertheless, this ontological security is highly affective and emotive, not reasoned or cognitive in nature.  Herein lies the rub: Weber’s classification of affective rationality (see part I) lowers the “burden of proof,” as it were, usually present in rational behavior in order to substantiate legitimacy.  As Jürgen Habermas notes, blind trust in a system appears to shelter it from the types of proof necessary in more reasoned behavior, such as those placed on argumentation, where the requirement of a system of validity claims is firmly established.  Therefore, to the extent that an individual evinces trust in an expert system, and thus lends it affective rationality and legitimation, there is a concomitant decrease in the requirement for rational communicative action in order to validate that system.

In the end, Giddens’ argument for trust in expert systems is well-nigh the same as the Weberian formulation, whereby society consents to authority through legitimacy based upon norms.  In both systems, consent is key, followed by the routinization of submission to authority or dependence upon expert systems.  In other words, the actor internalizes what was once an external structure to the point where compliance becomes habitual or instinctual.  Consequently, internal rules may have the ability to effect the individual actor’s definition of his interests.  Yet, we should not rush to embrace this phenomena, for individuals may feel engulfed and alienated (in a non-Marxist sense) in modern society by abstruse bureaucratic forces beyond their control.

In summation, two major means avail themselves to bureaucracies to legitimate their authority.  The state may coerce people into compliance (this is costly and possibly unstable) or socialize them into compliance by acceptance of the normative basis of the rational-bureaucratic order based upon what Giddens labels “faith in expert systems.”  The latter has proven less costly and produced a more stable socio-political order.  Governments not only cede claims of authority to bureaucracies, but they help to create the authority of the bureaucracies.  Authority establishes itself largely upon affective or emotional rationality (Weber’s sociology in part I) and trust in expert systems (Giddens sociology in part II).  In turn, this generates structures of public, intersubjective belief upon which the authority of bureaucracies rests.  This structure of intersubjective belief and the order it produces are vestiges of an increasingly successful—yet still reversible?—legitimation project.  Arguments over the proper size and scope of government would benefit from knowledge of the legitimacy of authority (Weber) and emotional attachment to expert systems (Giddens) unique to bureaucratic societies, especially those advancing the position of limited government.

N.B. The following books were cited: Anthony Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990); Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (Boston: Beacon Press, 1957); Jürgen Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action: Volume One: Reason and the Rationalization of Society, Thomas McCarthy (trans.) (Boston: Beacon Press, 1984).


Written by ryancberg

December 21, 2010 at 10:02 pm

One Response

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  1. Brilliant blog about Sources of Bureaucratic Legitimacy, Part II Capitolism. I read it twice.

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    January 13, 2011 at 1:39 pm

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