Jay Ulfelder kindly points his readers to my (recently updated!) working paper on “The Irrelevance of Legitimacy” in a recent post where he expresses doubt about the explanatory usefulness of the concept of legitimacy. As long-term readers will know, I am entirely in agreement with Jay when he says that
We appeal to legitimacy when we need to explain the persistence of political arrangements that defy our materialist predictions, and when those arrangements do finally collapse, we say that their failure has revealed a preceding loss of legitimacy. In statistical terms, legitimacy is the label we attach to the residual, the portion of the variance our mental models cannot explain. It is a tautology masquerading as a causal force.
It occurs to me that “legitimacy” plays more or less the same role in political science that “technology” sometimes plays in economics. Both are residual concepts that provide an illusion of understanding but do not actually explain much. In economics, talk of “technology” often obscures the fact that we don’t have a very good general theory of what explains economic growth, as Matt Yglesias noted a couple of weeks ago:
Economists have shown that modern economic growth can't be accounted for merely by growth in the size of the labor force or by accumulation of additional capital. You need to add a third element into the mix. This element is sometimes called "total factor productivity" and sometimes called "technology," but it represents a statistical discrepency, not an inquiry into independently identifiable properties of technological growth. It's like Molière's doctors explaining that opium puts people to sleep because of its virtus dormitiva.
If the discrepency were small, this might not be a big deal and we'd say that economists had shown that capital accumulation is the key to economic growth. But it's not small. What's been found is that economic growth is largely unexplained. Using the word "technology" as a label for the discrepency makes it sound as if the issue is much better understood than it really is.
Technology is here the “Solow residual:” all the different mechanisms by which economic growth occurs that are not accounted for by simple measures of labor and capital utilization. But there are many such mechanisms! Education, changes in political institutions and property rights, the invention of new machines and business methods, new forms of economic organization, changes in social roles, norms, and culture, etc. all can contribute to economic growth beyond increases in labor supply and capital accumulation; but only some of these mechanisms correspond to what we normally think about when we say “technology,” and forgetting this is likely to lead to incorrect inferences. Moreover, we do not actually know which of these mechanisms is the most important in general, and hence which government policies would be most likely to increase growth.
Similarly, “legitimacy” is the label we typically use in political science for all the factors that sustain social order or norms beyond obvious coercion and material incentives. We all agree that the persistence of norms and social order cannot be fully (or even mostly) explained by crude material incentives and obvious coercion; but by subsuming all these “other” factors under a single label we miss the fact that they are really quite various. Collective action problems, rational conservatism, signalling conventions, emotional attachments, habits of discourse and conceptual blinders, identity and affiliation entanglements, sophistry and propaganda, even sincere beliefs in the rightness of the norms or forms of social order in question (for a detailed examination of these mechanisms, read my paper); all of these mechanisms can contribute to their maintenance, and only some of them are close to the folk model of “legitimacy,” in which norms persist because in some sense those subject to them "like" them or at least "accept" them on their own terms. (A model that I take to be false in most relevant cases). Moreover, to the extent that we are interested in changing particular social norms or forms of social order, we will do better to think in terms of how particular mechanisms sustain these norms, rather than in terms of “legitimacy.”