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Legitimacy of Governments
Publication date: 2003-03-18

An Overview of Methods and Techniques Used by Governments to Justify Their Powers and Actions

With the current talk of “rogue states”, “regime changes” and of wars of “preemption” and “liberation” the issue of legitimacy of governments begs to be resolved.

What are the criteria for determining that a state is “rogue”, and who has authority to make such determination? What is the difference between a “government” and a “regime”? Who and on what basis can proclaim a government a “regime” and authorize its removal or replacement? All these questions can be reduced to the single general question: “What gives governments and their actions legitimacy?”.

The question of legitimacy of governments and their actions is not new, it has preoccupied Mankind throughout all its history. And governments have sought different ways to justify the legitimacy of their status and their actions.

  1. Legitimization of Government Status
    1. Legitimization of Government Status by Fear
    2. Legitimization of Government Status by Natural Leadership
    3. Legitimization of Government Status by Popular Support
    4. Legitimization of Government Status by Hereditary Succession
    5. Legitimization of Government Status by Elections
  2. Legitimization of Government Actions
    1. Legitimization of Government Actions by a Leader's Wishes
    2. Legitimization of Government Actions by Ideologies
    3. Legitimization of Government Actions by Religion
    4. Legitimization of Government Actions by Tribalism, Nationalism and Patriotism
    5. Legitimization of Government Actions by Political Convenience
    6. Legitimization of Government Actions by Social Acceptability
  3. Some Common Techniques of Legitimization of Government Actions
    1. Creation of an Enemy
    2. Name Calling
    3. Vilification of Opponents
    4. Stonewalling
    5. Cover‐ups
    6. Use of the Pronoun “We”
    7. Institutionalization
    8. Misinformation
  4. Laws of Men and Laws of God
  5. Global Laws for the Global Village

I. Legitimization of Government Status   -----   to top

As people have always needed somebody to resolve disputes between themselves and to protect them from their own violence and dishonesty as well as to organize them and manage them in their common tasks, people always finished by being governed by somebody. And this somebody was elevated to the status of government by one of the means described below.

1. Legitimization of Government Status by Fear   -----   to top

The most primitive way of establishing a government over a group of people is to proclaim oneself the Leader and force the people to submit to one's will by brutal force. This type of government has existed throughout all the history of mankind. Such governments are inherently unstable, because, sooner or later, somebody will replace such government by the same method it had risen to power. But such governments can stay in power for many decades or even for a few generations.

2. Legitimization of Government Status by Natural Leadership   -----   to top

Often, especially when a tribe is in urgent need of leadership, such as attack by other tribes or dealing with some natural calamities, a person emerges from among them who is the most capable of being a leader due to his personal abilities, and people naturally follow him. The availability of such leaders is, however, pure luck (or an Act of God). In all nations and religions there are prayers for wise and capable leaders, but they are seldom answered, and people have to resign to being lead by vain opportunists, who rely on demagogy to keep themselves in power.

3. Legitimization of Government Status by Popular Support   -----   to top

Some people aspiring to leadership have greater popular appeal than others, they might be charismatic, photogenic, or just skillful demagogues. Hitler is an example of such popular leader.

4. Legitimization of Government Status by Hereditary Succession   -----   to top

Once a leader is established, his leadership could be passed on his death to his children by hereditary succession. This method used to be very common, and is still in use in some countries, but has mostly been replaced by elections.

5. Legitimization of Government Status by Elections   -----   to top

Sometimes having realized that they need a leader, people decide to elect one from among themselves. In a small group this can be as simple as drawing lots. In established nations this is usually achieved though a complex electoral system.

But, whichever way a person or group of people are brought to government power, they would need to legitimate their actions.

II. Legitimization of Government Actions   -----   to top

Governments issue orders (or decrees) and enact laws. These orders and laws can be based on arbitrary wishes of the leader (tyranny), or on understanding of the needs of the human society (religion), or on elaborate theories (ideologies) which justify the actions of government.

1. Legitimization of Government Actions by a Leader's Wishes   -----   to top

While such legitimization is usually associated with tyrannies of gangsters or absolute rulers, like Louis XIV of France, who equated his own personality with the state (L'etat c'est moi — I am the state), there has been a resurgence of such legitimization in recent months. Thus, Tony Blair justifies the need for a war against Iraq by the strength and passion of his own feelings and beliefs. It is obvious that his own feelings and beliefs are his own private personal matter, and the only way to justify a war is a legal proof based on facts and legal principles. But Tony Blair sees his personal feelings and convictions as a law which he can impose on the rest of the world — just as Louis XIV of France (1643–1715).

2. Legitimization of Government Actions by Ideologies   -----   to top

Ideologies are fanciful pseudo‐scientific theories, the purpose of which is to provide a system of beliefs that the proponents of such theory have a right to interfere with freedom and property of others. Ideologies have been often used to legitimize government actions. The most notorious and widespread ideology in the 20th century was Socialism in its different varieties: Communism, National, International, Democratic, Popular, Christian, Arab, etc. Hitler and Stalin are the most notorious 20th century Socialist rulers. Tony Blair and Saddam Hussain began their careers as Socialists.

The main assumption of the Socialist ideology was the idea of “public ownership”, which allowed a Socialist government to confiscate the property of private people and to take an almost complete control over their lives.

3. Legitimization of Government Actions by Religion   -----   to top

Religion has been used to legitimize actions of government in two ways: as an ideology, and as a way of seeking objective human values inherent in the nature itself.

Use of religion as an ideology was simply to proclaim the ruler himself as God (as the Pharaoh of Egypt) or to claim that the actions of the ruler are inspired by God.

Use of religion as a way of seeking objective human values inherent in the Nature itself consists of seeking to create laws based on Natural Justice, that is of laws independent of anybody's will or interests, and applicable to all men in equal measure. The laws of the Bible and the Qur'an are examples of such laws. In this case the ruler is bound to follow these natural, objective laws rather than his own desires, passions and beliefs.

4. Legitimization of Government Actions by Tribalism, Nationalism and Patriotism   -----   to top

Tribalism, nationalism and patriotism as means of justification of government actions is the acceptance of a proposition “right or wrong my [tribe, nation or] country”. It is a belief that the interests of the group to which one belongs are above the interests of all other groups. It is a form of collective egoism glamorized as an “ideal”. By appealing to the feelings of national (or tribal) pride, and by exciting hatred against other nations (or tribes) the leader can put himself in a position of absolute power. By having identified himself with the group in the eyes of the group members, he equates loyalty to himself with loyalty to the nation (tribe or country). Anybody who opposes him is labeled as traitor and “enemy of the people”. Up to recent times this was one of the main ways of legitimizing government powers especially at times of wars.

G.W. Bush's “With Us or Against Us” doctrine is an example of globalizing this technique. The world is presented as two camps “Us”, the USA and its allies, and them “The Terrorists, and their Harbourers and Supporters”. Thus, anybody who does not want to be labeled a terrorist and an “Enemy of Civilization” must identify himself with the National Interests of the US, and the personal Leadership of G.W. Bush himself. This techniques has proved to be successful to justify the Afghan war in the wake of the 9/11 hysteria, but has failed to rally the whole world in support of the war against Iraq, because by that time the 9/11 hysteria had evaporated and the world started regaining their ability to think rationally.

5. Legitimization of Government Actions by Political Convenience   -----   to top

The practice of governments of using their powers to do what is convenient to them is as old as government itself, but it was not till late 20th century that politicians began to justify their actions by saying “we had to do it that way, because it was politically convenient”. This was quite a common way of justifying government failures and abuses of power.

6. Legitimization of Government Actions by Social Acceptability   -----   to top

This late 20th century technique was usually used in conjunction with that of “Political Convenience”. It means simply getting away with government failures and abuses of powers, because the public accepts them without mounting an opposition which would cause sufficient inconvenience to the government in power. This was commonly expressed as “we did it because it was socially acceptable”, or “we did it because it was politically convenient and socially acceptable”. The general public distrust and aversion to politicians is due in a great measure to the use by politicians of these techniques. Having no practical ways to deal with abuses of powers by government people just turn away from the politicians in disgust.

When the abuses of powers result in injustice to ethnic or similar groups, and there are no practical ways of dealing with these abuses, social acceptability can turn into riots, civil wars and terrorism.

III. Some Common Techniques of Legitimization of Government Actions   -----   to top

In addition to the above methods of legitimization of government powers, a number of techniques have been used to legitimate government actions either as part of the above methods or in addition to them.

1. Creation of an Enemy   -----   to top

To justify attacking a country, a group of population, or a particular individual rulers simply proclaim their victim an “enemy”. Once the victim is labeled as enemy any action against it is seen as legitimate. Anybody attempting to defend the “enemy” is labeled as “enemy” himself. Today the US government keeps under arrest hundreds of prisoners captured at the time of the Afghan war. Having proclaimed them as enemies, the US government can treat them in any way they please.

2. Name Calling   -----   to top

Name calling is a very common technique to justify acts of hostility against a chosen victim. It is used by children, grown‐ups, and governments. One of the currently fashionable ways of justifying a war against a country is to proclaim the government of that country a “regime”.

3. Vilification of Opponents   -----   to top

Labeling as enemy and name calling are often accompanied by vilification of the intended victim of aggression. Vilification consists in publication of propaganda material intended to present the victim in the worst possible light. By contrast “friends and allies” are presented in the best possible light while any negative facts about them are suppressed or played down.

4. Stonewalling   -----   to top

“Stonewalling” is a political jargon term used by government officials to describe ignoring of complaints against their actions or raising of inconvenient for them questions. An “awkward” issue is simply ignored in the hope that the person raising the awkward issue, having received no response to his query will give up and not pursue it further.

This is also called “relying on the hassle factor”. That is the fact that people might not have enough motivation or resources to go through “all the hassle” of fighting the government bureaucracy, which could be a very time consuming business.

This technique is frequently used and often proves effective and allows governments and government officials to get away with incompetence and abuses of power, but leads to distrust and negative attitudes towards government and can have an adverse effect on those who practice such techniques at the times of the elections.

5. Cover-ups   -----   to top

Whenever a government does something wrong, the standard reaction is to cover up their misdeeds. Often cover‐ups work, and attempts to uncover the truth often result in expensive inquiries lasting for years and often with uncertain results. The effect of the cover‐ups is similar to that of “stonewalling” — loss of trust in government.

The attempts by the John Major government to cover up the “Arms to Iraq” scandal played a major role in the downfall of his government.

One of the cover‐ups at the international stage is the cover‐up of the crimes committed by the Israelis against the Palestinians in 1947–1948. Denial, ignoring and refusal to acknowledge these crimes and deal with their consequences are the primary cause of the so‐called Middle East Conflict, which lasted for over 50 years, and was a major contributing factor to world terrorism and the events of the 9/11.

The continued avoidance of this issue in the present attempts to resolve this conflict gives little hope that this conflict will be resolved until political games are abandoned, the truth is acknowledged and justice prevails.

Use of the Pronoun “We”   -----   to top

A common technique of legitimization of their actions by politicians is the use of the pronoun “we”, as in “We must disarm Saddam Hussain”. Such use suggests the speaker talks on behalf of all the nation and has its full support. Similar effect is the use of the name of the country instead the name of the leader, as in “Britain must decide”, instead of “I must decide on behalf of Britain”.

Institutionalization   -----   to top

This technique consists of suggestion that an institution, or a person holding a public office cannot be wrong, and for that reason a statement by such person or a decision of such institution should be unquestioningly accepted as valid.

Tony Blair has used this technique on a number of occasions when his other arguments appeared to be unconvincing. He would say, “Would I say this, if it were wrong?”.

An interesting example of how this technique works in practice, was the fact that on the issue of whether the war against Iraq was justified some people were saying that they were against the war, but would support it, if there were a UN resolution in support of it.

The validity of any issue depends only on facts and logical reasoning from fundamental assumptions. Truth of facts cannot be established by vote, nor injustice turned into justice. But people are prepared to accept decisions based on agreements between politicians who distort or hide the truth and pervert the logic and whose understanding of justice is their “national interests” and electoral prospects. And people are surprised that the world is in a mess!

Misinformation   -----   to top

Misinformation, that is hiding, distortion and fabrication of facts and drawing of false logical conclusions, is used both as part of other legitimization techniques and as a large scale activity in its own right, in which case it is usually called propaganda, or “spin”.

Tony Blair is notorious for setting up a “spin” operation to justify his politics. Propaganda has been heavily used by the Socialist governments of Hitler and Stalin. The Bush administration has been heavily relying on propaganda in their bid to rule the world.

IV. Laws of Men and Laws of God   -----   to top

Having reviewed various ways of legitimization of government and government actions, we can now understand that legitimization is nothing else than acceptance by the people of the authority of a government.

People submit themselves to a government and its orders and laws through fear, necessity, or as a result of manipulation of their emotions (hatred or fear of a real or imaginary enemy, expectation of a receipt of benefits, ruler deification, etc), or just because they do not have the means of dealing with the incompetence and abuses of powers by government officials — all these methods of imposition of control come from the government itself.

The only alternative to this is accepting the authority not of men, but of objective laws based on the realities of Nature itself. In this case the ruler becomes just an administrator, rather than a despot or a demagogue seeking to impose his own will on the people by brutal force or by deception and manipulation of human emotions.

Examples of attempts to govern people by objective, non‐political laws based on Natural Justice are the Laws of Moses and of the Qur'an. The more modern attempts of government by such laws are the laws of some European countries which were in operation in the 17th to the 19th century. In the 20th century such laws were replaced by political legislation aimed to advance interests of various constituencies and pressure groups and to keep political demagogues in power.

While in the past honesty and competence of national leaders depended on the personal qualities of the leaders themselves, today the amount of knowledge and the ability to distribute and use this knowledge has vastly increased. By establishing strict procedures and control of government activities to ensure that the government powers are not abused it is possible to eliminate politics from government.

V. Global Laws for the Global Village   -----   to top

In the past all laws or justifications of powers of government were confined to the nation states governed by national rulers. This was true regardless of the methods by which the ruler was raised to power. Other nations were seen as enemies or as temporary allies against other enemies. No ally could ever be trusted and could turn into an enemy at any time. The present American Foreign Policy doctrine is still based on this view of the world: enemies and allies. But the present day world has become too closely interconnected and the model of rival nation states constantly at war with each other has become obsolete.

Mankind is becoming one single nation, and an objective Natural‐Justice‐based supra‐national law is becoming an obvious necessity. No person, group or nation has a monopoly of right and wrong — all are equal under the law. The imperial dinosaurs, like G.W. Bush and Tony Blair, are still trying to impose their will on the rest of the world by force of arms, but this only makes the need for a world order based on rule of law, rather than super‐power gangsterism, still more obvious for the rest of the world.

G.W. Bush is hooked on wars as a heroin junky. War hysteria helps him to maintain his popularity and his power. This is why, if the Iraq war proves an easy victory, he will go for another war, probably against Syria or Iran, as per the Netanyahu books and speeches. To maintain the war hysteria he will need to occupy more and more countries. His craving for wars will only stop when he has suffered a crushing defeat, but this might not come until he has conquered enough countries to overstretch his resources, which he is bound to do sooner or later. And then his empire will collapse. And the higher he climbs, the harder will be the fall.

The Bush wars will result in greater movement and intermixing of people, and the resistance to his wars will be bringing people closer together. Out of the ashes of this sprawling World War III will arise a single united world determined to put an end to wars and politics and to create a world order based not on legitimization techniques, but on truth, honesty and justice. And the beginning of this process can be seen even now.

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