Political Legitimacy, Essay Example
Explain the liberal idea of political legitimacy using Locke’s theory. When explaining the notion of political legitimacy, analyze the origin of “political society”, its ends, the scope of government and the features of the legislative power. How does Locke call the illegitimate power and when does it occur? Do the people have the right to resist it?
Locke’s importance as political theorist is traditionally interpreted in terms of his consistency with a nascent position of liberalism. Above all what is crucial to the Lockeian position is the notion of political legitimacy, an idea that itself recapitulates the basic principles of liberalism as committed to forms of individualism and the de-centralization of hegemonic sites of power. According to Richardson, Locke’s account of political legitimacy may be boiled down to four basic points, which are harmonious with the ideology of liberalism: individualism, consent, the rule of law and its relation to government, and property. For Locke it is these four conditions that define a political society, such that the latter becomes legitimate only insofar as it fulfills these four conditions.
In the case of individualism, what is crucial to Locke is the notion that the political society originates from a conscious self-organizing of individuals. Accordingly, the individual is the basic unit of the political society, and the latter therefore exists only as an extension of the former. The political society thereby operates as a collective that attempts to guarantee and protect the rights of the individual. Secondly, consent re-iterates how individuals remain the focus of a political society despite the apparent paradox of this gesture. Namely, power in political society is only acquired through the indiviudal’s recognition of this power: this accordingly re-iterates the original purpose of the political society as protecting individual rights, while also defending these same rights against their possible transgression by the political society. Thirdly, the rule of law helps establish and monitor the political society, preventing it from possibly violating its own boundaries. The rule of law can be understood as a liberal idea that attempts to eliminate any notion of the exception: insofar as no one is above or outside the law, the concept intends to render untenable the potential exploitation of the system against its original foundations as consecrated in the individual. Fourthly, property seems to tie into the original Lockeian emphasis on individuality, as by maintaining the right to property once again society is defined in terms of a basic unit of individuality: the separation of property from the political society prevents possible exploitations of the mechanism of the political society, thus helping to maintain the individual’s potential freedom within this same society. Accordingly, Locke’s account of illegitimate power is defined by the extent to which this form of power violates the above principles. Authorities that curtail individuality, seeking to maintain the power of the state over the individual are, for Locke, “tyrannical” expressions of politics. Such political discourses re-formulate the notion that the state exists for the people in terms of the notion that the people exist to perpetuate the state. In these cases, it becomes clear therefore, that as the original aim of political society is to protect individual rights, such a tyrannical form of political society is at its heart anti-political: resistance to this type of government is justified since such resistance is essentially a defense of the possibility of the political itself against its dissolution.
 James L. Richardson, Contending Liberalisms in World Politics: Ideology and Power, (London, UK: Lynne Reiner Publishers Inc., 2001).
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