States actually care greatly about what their people think of them.
This may come as a surprise you, especially if you’re a libertarian. Don’t mistake this to mean that they act in accordance with the will of the people. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. That isn’t the issue. What concerns the state is the desire to be seen as a legitimate source of political authority in the region.
A state instinctively desires to be perceived as legitimate by the people underneath its rule. This does not mean that the state is legitimate. Rather, it speaks to the conflicted nature of the state as an illegitimate entity constantly trying to convince people of its legitimacy no matter what actions it takes.
States may try to act as legitimately as possible but it is essentially the pursuit of theunattainable. One state may adhere more closely to ideals of a legitimate government than another, but it is still at its core based on coercion and aggression. Obviously, not all states are the same. Iceland is vastly preferable to North Korea. It is similar to being pushed or being shot without just cause; both are instances of aggression but they are hardly comparable in terms of their effects.
There are two approaches a state can take in regards to this perpetual condition of insecurity. One is to act as legitimate as possible. The other is to convince its people its legitimate. Most states do a combination of both, but they tend to be inversely proportionate. In other words, a state that is the most illegitimate will often engage in the most propagandizing. The lady doeth protest too much.
A state that is as close to legitimate as permissible, i.e. minarchism, doesn’t need to do much to prove it’s legitimate. The facts speak for themselves.
There are a myriad of reasons for why states do this, but I believe at the heart of it is that without this perception of legitimacy their ability to effectively control people is diminished. People may obey a law because they subconsciously understand that if they do not violence sooner or later will be used to enforce it. But this is a blunt, inefficient method of exerting influence over a population. Under this scenario people only obey when the fear of violence is real. Other than that, they will disobey. Eventually the government collapses or they resort to violence.
A case study of this is the Roman occupation of Palestine. The Jews living there never accepted Rome as their legitimate government. There were rebellions and revolts constantly. The Romans couldn’t convince the people they were a valid authority, so they turned to violence. In 70 A.D. the Romans besieged Jerusalem and destroyed it.
Look at any country in the world where the rules are ignored or at best seen as guidelines or recommendations. Either the state doesn’t bother to enforce those rules through apathy or a lack of resources, or it has failed to convince the people that they are the legitimate governing body.
Of course, they are the de facto power through superior strength. Might makes might. But legitimacy governance comes from consent. Right makes right.
The state does not rule because it is right but because it is might.
However, it’s crucial to be might while regarded as right. The more it overtly relies on might the harder it is to fool people into thinking it is right.
The state desperately wishes to be seen as legitimate, but by definition it is not. Some states may genuinely try to act as legitimately as possible; there are instances where this can and does occur.
Sometimes a state can have a strong perception of legitimacy because it is not many steps away from it.
Nevertheless, for the vast majority of countries the appearance of legitimacy has the highest and exclusive priority because acting legitimate is simply impossible. Additionally, the rulers may not even realize their authority is illegitimate.
The simple fact is that a state perceived as legitimate by its people will have greater power over them than a state that is not. People who believe a state is their government will follow its laws even when no one is around and even when the rules themselves are ridiculous.
For a good case study of this, look at how effective the rationing policy was carried out by the United States government during World War 2. Ration boards decided who got how much of a certain good through a ration card. A member of one ration board remarked “We discovered that the American people are basically honest and talk too much.”
In contrast, those who do not view their state as a legitimate government will only follow the rules when necessary or beneficial.
In fact, a state that has less actual capacity to carry out its decrees but has a strong perception of legitimacy can obtain higher levels of cooperation and compliance than a state with more power but a failed illusion of legitimacy.
Again, this may shock some who believe modern states do not care what its people think.
Where they get confused is thinking that politicians and bureaucrats and others take orders from the people. To an extent this is true, but only insofar as it threatens their perceived legitimacy.
They may not care what people think, but they care very much about whether people think they are a legitimate ruler. A few or small minority of disgruntled citizens is acceptable. Half a population is a recipe for trouble.
This is why you will hear so much talk about “the people” and “the will of the people” and “the government of the people, by the people, for the people.” It’s all nonsense, but it serves its purpose in fooling people into thinking that the government they live under must be obeyed because to do otherwise is to reject the authority of those who have a rightful claim to ruling them.
States employ several strategies to achieve this end.
A few examples include:
We are here to take care of you/protect you. Daddy and mommy know what’s best. The comparison is effective because it casts the state in the same light as parents, who as stewards have legitimate authority over their children until they become independent. I find nothing fundamentally wrong with the terms fatherland and motherland, but the problem is that they are often hijacked by governments which claim to act as the voice of the nation.
It leads people to think that rebelling against the state is akin to a child rebelling against mom and dad. It is a classic example of the state conflating government with society. By resisting the decrees of your government you’re going against the family.
No wonder some think libertarians are childish.
In America we have Uncle Sam representing the U.S. government. The image conveys a sense of fraternal care and concern for individual wellbeing.
Americans also have the female manifestation of the U.S. government in the form of Columbia (pictured at the beginning of the post), who emanates all the wholesome qualities of traditional motherhood.
One huge benefit to this approach is that the perception of legitimacy as a fraternal figure remains even when the political leaders change. Those who actual run the government (i.e. the Deep State) remain in power and unlike revolutionaries after overthrowing a government they do not have to explain why they are legitimate but those before were not.
Like Al Capone says of himself in The Untouchables, they claim to respond to the will of the people. What the people want is what they get, so they tell us. Heavy emphasis on providing people with opportunities to “let their voice be heard.” This acts as an outlet for citizens to vent while feeling as though they have a say or influence; they might have an impact, but there is always an implicit limitation to the influence.
The state’s legitimacy comes from a mystical process through which a social contract was set up creating the specific government exactly how it is and giving it authority over you and anyone else within a specified region but which may expand depending on the circumstances as decreed by an unknown source. This social contract also comes with terms and conditions you must adhere to because that’s what the social contract is.If you don’t like it you’re free to leave – just make sure you get the state’s permission first, though.
If this confuses you, well, it’s just because you’re not a state priest and thus not qualified to determine what your rights are.
This isn’t used as often anymore but sometimes appeals to religion itself is used. God or the gods willed the state to be, so it is legitimate. What many people mistake for appeals to divine right today by mainstream churches are really just civic religious arguments.
The Moon is Down
This effort by states also applies to invaders and conquerors, too. No matter how brutal and barbaric a tyrant seems, they will try to persuade the oppressed that they are the legitimate government over that given territory. Unless they plan to exterminate the people outright, a ruler needs their cooperation.
The example I’m about to give is fictional but like all good fiction it uses an imaginary story to tell a real-life truth.
During World War 2, author John Steinbeck penned a short novel titled The Moon Is Down. The book concerns a small town in a Northern European country conquered by an invading army. It doesn’t specify which nations, but it’s clear the country invaded is Norway and the invaders are Nazis.
I use this book as an example of my point despite it being fictional because it was one of the most popular books published by the Underground Resistance in Europe during the war. The reason? It was one of the most realistic depictions of an occupation in terms of both the plot and the characters. The invaders aren’t monsters but regular people who have families and loved ones and sweethearts –his sympathetic portrayal of the enemy got Steinbeck in trouble with some literary critics, but occupied Europe knew from first-hand experience that the Nazi weren’t supermen devoid of emotions and feelings. Like everyone else, they got homesick and desired to love and be loved.
What this tells us is that many of the scenes in this novel occurred in real life, including the one I’m about to describe. You can read the chapter yourself here.
As part of the town’s invasion several of the towns’ defenders are killed. The invading army headed by Colonel Lanser sets up his HQ in the house of Mayor Orden. Despite the clear usurpation of authority, they keep the mayor in his position.
Shortly after this, a local citizen working in the town’s coal mine kills a captain with the invading army, now an occupation force. The sentence is quickly decided; the citizen must be executed.
However, Colonel Lanser approaches Mayor Orden and insists he pronounce the sentence. Mayor Orden throws the idea back at the colonel. It would be absurd for him to pretend he made the decision because everyone in the town knows it’s not his call.
Even Lanser admits the decision is above his own authority. “If I agreed with you, it would make no difference.”
So why does it matter that the mayor give his blessing?
Lanser explains (bold emphasis added).
“Mayor Orden, you know our orders are inexorable. We must get the coal. If your people are not orderly, we will have to restore that order by force.” His voice grew stern. “We must shoot people if it is necessary. If you wish to save your people from hurt, you must help us to keep order. Now, it is considered wise by my government that punishment emanate from the local authority. It makes for a more orderly situation.”
They need the coal. In order to get the coal, they need the people to cooperate, and they will not cooperate with an occupation force that exerts power literally through the barrel of a gun. However, they will obey what they view as a legitimate authority. Mayor Orden maintains this perception, and his reply shows why.
“This principle does not work. First, I am the Mayor. I have no right to pass sentence of death. There is no one in this community with that right. If I should do it, I would be breaking the law as much as you.”
Lanser is outraged, but Orden presses on with his point (bold emphasis added).
“You killed six men when you came in. Under our law you are guilty of murder, all of you. Why do you go into this nonsense of law, Colonel? There is no law between you and us. This is war. Don’t you know you will have to kill all of us or in time we will kill all of you? You destroyed the law when you came in, and a new law took its place. Don’t you know that?”
The colonel offers no counterargument, other than reiterate his need for Orden to condemn the man to death. The mayor then offers to do so, but only if he can also sentence the soldiers who killed his townspeople as well. Ultimately the mayor is replaced by a quisling and the execution is carried out.
Yet, it is a crippling blow to the invaders because they fail to achieve legitimacy. A government that does not have it will not last for long, and a government that loses it won’t last long, either. The only way to prevent this is through brutal suppression, but even that can only work for so long.
I’ll conclude this by pointing out what actually happened in France after the Germans took control in 1940. The Vichy government was set up afterwards. It was run by Frenchmen, but it was no more than a puppet regime controlled by the Third Reich. However, Hitler yet allowed Frenchmen to rule over their own people because they could claim legitimacy which Berlin could not.
It is no coincidence that Petain, the great French war hero of World War I, was selected to run the government.
Unlike Mayor Orden in Steinbeck’s tale, Petain tried to to convince his people that the Vichy government was legitimate. But he failed and and paid the price. After the war he was sentenced to death but was ultimately spared most likely as a result of his former war record.
Today, Petain is known perhaps as much for his cooperation with the Nazis as he is for his heroic actions from the Great War. And the word “vichy” is synonymous with “sell-out,” “collaborator,” and “traitor.”
That’s what happens when a political leader or a government fails to secure this perception of legitimacy over its own people and cannot use the needed level of violence to maintain it.
It’s why governments will always strive to obtain it or maintain that perception, even though if they actually tried it would be trying to attain the unattainable. The state’s desire to be seen as legitimate is rooted in its perpetual insecurity in regards to its illegitimate nature.