Do we need global legitimacy?

A brief history of the concept of legitimacy and why we need to develop it

Essay 2011 22 Pages

Politics - International Politics - General and Theories


Table of contents


1. Theoretical background
1.1 Legitimacy theory
1.2 Realization of legitimacy
1.3 The state in the 21st century

2. Global Legitimacy
2.1 Why we need it
2.2 How we achieve it

3. Political legitimacy and the WTO
3.1 World Trade Organization
3.2 The legitimacy of the WTO

4. How to solve the problem?




In a paper written last semester, entitled Why we need to renew democracy in Europe [1], I pointed out, that although democracy is often seen as the overarching idea, legitimacy in fact is the broader concept. This prompted me to think about the application of political legitimacy to a global context. I asked myself if it is actually legitimacy that we need to reconsider. Therefore, this work can be seen as the continuation of the last semester term paper.

Legitimacy theory has developed from a western human centric point of view. The initial question was how to control human beings. In answer to this question, the nation state – a hierarchical ordered construct – was invented. The concept of legitimacy refers to the people’s acceptance of this political entity. Thus, the concept of political legitimacy is historically bound to the nation state and its political system. Recent developments attempt to question this. This becomes most obvious when it comes to the global problems we are facing. We live in a complex global governance system and affecting decisions are made by global organizations beyond the nation state. Just as the state is no longer capable of controlling and managing society anymore I argue that the society is no longer capable of controlling the decisions made within – or beyond – a nation state. Neither our traditional tools of domestic democracy, nor such instruments as state consent on a global level are longer sufficient.

Following the initial brief introduction of the history of the concept of political legitimacy theory, starting with Thomas Hobbes, I point out the realization of legitimacy in the nation state and the main changes within the political system in the last century. Secondly, the World Trade Organization (WTO) serves as an example, which demonstrates the difficulties of legitimizing global organization. Thereby I will focus on state consent and developing countries. Finally, I will highlight methods of resolutions and will draw a connection to the history of legitimacy theory.

1. Theoretical background

1.1 The concept of legitimacy

In the first place Thomas Hobbes and John Locke concerned themselves with legitimacy. Thomas Hobbes was born in 1588 and most strongly influenced by the English Civil War[2]. Due to his experience, Hobbes strongly emphasizes the barbaric status of the human nature (Münkler 2001, 51). He assumes that such values as “justice, equity, modesty, merci, and, in sum, doing to others as we would be done to […] are contrary to our natural passions, that carry us to partiality, pride, revenge and the like” (Hobbes 2008, 116). In order to overcome these dark circumstances, Thomas Hobbes developed a philosophy, initially in the theory of social contract, where all men yield the right to govern themselves to one man or one assembly of men, which is called the sovereign (Hobbes 2008, 119). This sovereign then gains legitimized political authority by protecting the human beings from their own barbaric nature (Hobbes 2008, 116). In Hobbes’ scenario, only two possibilities

exist: chaos or order. As humans rationally prefer order to chaos, the establishment of this order legitimizes the sovereign. Therefore, the sovereign cannot be held accountable for what directly leads to an absolute state. The absolutism of Hobbes’ sovereign denies any rights of humans against the state (Dyzenhaus 1997, 89).

Similarly, John Locke believes in a certain status naturalis, which is characterized by several deficits. He stresses, “the state of nature has a law of nature to govern it” (Locke 1948, 5). But, in contrast to Thomas Hobbes, John Locke assumes that political authority already exists in the state of human nature. Rawls describes Locke’s equal distribution of political authority as “a state of equal right, all being kings” (Rawls 2007, 129). According to Locke’s perspective, legitimacy is created by the correct way of transforming the individual political authority into political

power. He defines political power as “(…) a right of making laws with penalties of death, and consequently all penalties, for the regulating and preserving of property, (…) and all this only for the public good” (Locke 1948, 4). Even though Locke’s sovereign gains the absolute power, the individuals now have the right to constitute a new legislative. He notices, “(w)hen anyone or more shall take upon them (the people) to make laws, whom the people have not appointed so to do, they make laws without authority (…) and (the people) may constitute to themselves a new legislative (…)” (Locke 1948, 97).

Jean-Jaques Rousseau takes the next step in the history of legitimacy theory. First of all, in his early work Discourse on inequality [3], he addresses the moral and metaphysical dimension of the free will of human beings. This God-given will is, according to Rousseau, absolutely necessary for a civil association (Kelly/Masters 1995, 53). Secondly, in his main work The Social Contract [4], he propagates the Volonté Générale as the legitimating principle of the sovereignty of the people (Miller 1984, 2). The term Volonté Générale expresses two dimensions. Firstly, the assumption that “(w)ithout will there is no freedom, no self-determination, no moral ‘causality’ (…). (Secondly,) without generality, the will may be capricious, egoistic, self-obsessed, willful” (Riley 1995, 4). His generality refers to “the rule of law, for civic education that draws us out of ourselves and towards the general (or common) good, (…)” (Riley 1995, 4). Rousseau terms

those laws as conventions. He declares, “(s)ince no man has natural authority over his fellow, and force creates no right, we must conclude that conventions form the basis of all legitimate authority among man” (Rousseau 2008, 17). Rousseau creates political authority by justifying coercive power[5]. He gives the name “(…) “Republic” to every state that is governed by law, no matter what the form of its administration may be” (Rousseau 2008, 43). In his anticipation of free will as ‘moral causality’,


[1] for the course Political Governance II

[2] From 1642 to 1651

[3] Original: Discours sur l'origine de l'inegalite (1754)

[4] Original: Du contrat social ou Principes du droit politique (1762)

[5] Quod vide: Peter, Fabienne (2010): Polical Legitimacy. In: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy


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Title: Do we need global legitimacy?