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The Supreme Court of the United States is the highest judicial authority in the United States of America. AuthorityOfLaw.JPG
The Supreme Court of the United States is the highest judicial authority in the United States of America.

In the fields of sociology and political science, authority is the legitimate power of a person or group over other people. [1] In a civil state, authority is practiced in ways such a judicial branch or an executive branch of government. [2]


In the exercise of governance, the terms authority and power are inaccurate synonyms. The term authority identifies the political legitimacy, which grants and justifies the ruler's right to exercise the power of government; and the term power identifies the ability to accomplish an authorized goal, either by compliance or by obedience; hence, authority is the power to make decisions and the legitimacy to make such legal decisions and order their execution. [3]


Ancient understandings of authority trace back to Rome and draw later from Catholic (Thomistic) thought and other traditional understandings. In more modern terms, forms of authority include transitional authority (exhibited in, for example, Cambodia), [4] public authority in the form of popular power, and, in more administrative terms, bureaucratic or managerial techniques. In terms of bureaucratic governance, one limitation of the governmental agents of the executive branch, as outlined by George A. Krause, is that they are not as close to the popular will as elected representatives are. [5] The claims of authority can extend to national or individual sovereignty, which is broadly or provisionally understood as a claim to political authority that is legitimated. [6]

Historical applications of authority in political terms include the formation of the city-state of Geneva, and experimental treatises involving the topic of authority in relation to education include Emile, or On Education by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. As David Laitin defines, authority is a key concept to be defined in determining the range and role of political theory, science and inquiry. [7] The relevance of a grounded understanding of authority includes the basic foundation and formation of political, civil and/or ecclesiastical institutions or representatives. In recent years, however, authority in political contexts has been challenged or questioned.

Political philosophy

There have been several contributions to the debate of political authority. Among others, Hannah Arendt, Carl Joachim Friedrich, Thomas Hobbes, Alexandre Kojève and Carl Schmitt have provided some of the most influential texts.

In European political philosophy, the jurisdiction of political authority, the location of sovereignty, the balancing of notions of freedom and authority, [8] and the requirements of political obligations have been core questions from the time of Plato and Aristotle to the present. Most democratic societies are engaged in an ongoing discussion regarding the legitimate extent of the exercise of governmental authority. In the United States, for instance, there is a prevailing belief that the political system as instituted by the Founding Fathers should accord the populace as much freedom as reasonable; that government should limit its authority accordingly, known as limited government.

Political anarchism is a philosophy which rejects the legitimacy of political authority and adherence to any form of sovereign rule or autonomy of a nation-state. An argument for political anarchy is made by Michael Huemer in his book The Problem of Political Authority . On the other side, one of the main arguments for the legitimacy of the state is some form of the social contract theory developed by Thomas Hobbes in his 1668 book, Leviathan, or by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his political writings on the social contract.


Since the emergence of the social sciences, authority has become a subject of research in a variety of empirical settings: the family (parental authority), small groups (informal authority of leadership), intermediate organizations such as schools, churches, armies, industries and bureaucracies (organizational and bureaucratic authority), and society-wide or inclusive organizations, ranging from the most primitive tribal society to the modern nation-state and intermediate organization (political authority).

The definition of authority in contemporary social science remains a matter of debate. Max Weber in his essay "Politics as a Vocation" (1919) divided legitimate authority into three types. Others, like Howard Bloom, suggest a parallel between authority and respect/reverence for ancestors. [9]

United Kingdom and the Commonwealth realms

The political authority in the British context can be traced to James VI and I of Scotland who wrote two political treatises called Basilikon Doron and The True Law of Free Monarchies: Or, The Reciprocal and Mutual Duty Between a Free King and His Natural Subjects which advocated his right to rule on the basis of the concept of the divine right of kings, a theological concept that has a basis in multiple religions, but in this case, Christianity, tracing this right to the apostolic succession.

Sovereign kings and queens in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth Realms are considered the foundations of judicial, legislative and executive authority.

United States

The understanding of political authority and the exercise of political powers in the American context traces back to the writings of the Founding Fathers, including the arguments put forward in The Federalist Papers by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and the first chief justice of the United States John Jay, and later speeches by the 16th president of the United States Abraham Lincoln. "Our government rests in public opinion," Lincoln said in 1856. [10] In his 1854 speech at Peoria, Illinois, Lincoln espoused the proposition “that each man should do precisely as he pleases with all which is exclusively his own," a principle existing "at the foundation of the sense of justice." [11] This sense of personal ownership and stewardship was integral to the practice of self-government as Lincoln saw it by a Republican nation and its people. This was because, as Lincoln also declared, "No man is good enough to govern another man, without that other's consent." [12]

The U.S. president is called to give account to the legislature for the conduct of the whole government, including that of regulatory agencies. The president influences the appointments, the budgeting process and has the right and capacity to review regulatory rules on a case-by-case basis. Since the time of the Reagan administration the president was informed with a cost–benefit analysis of the regulation. [13] The creation of a regulatory agency requires an Act of Congress which specifies its jurisdiction, the related authority and delegated powers. Regulatory authorities can be qualified as independent agencies or executive branch agencies, a choice which is the reason of struggle between congress and the president as well as with the American courts. The latter's role is limited by the authorities' power to regulate property rights without the due process rights mandatorily applied by the courts. [13]

See also

Related Research Articles

Political freedom is a central concept in history and political thought and one of the most important features of democratic societies. Political freedom was described as freedom from oppression or coercion, the absence of disabling conditions for an individual and the fulfillment of enabling conditions, or the absence of life conditions of compulsion, e.g. economic compulsion, in a society. Although political freedom is often interpreted negatively as the freedom from unreasonable external constraints on action, it can also refer to the positive exercise of rights, capacities and possibilities for action and the exercise of social or group rights. The concept can also include freedom from internal constraints on political action or speech. The concept of political freedom is closely connected with the concepts of civil liberties and human rights, which in democratic societies are usually afforded legal protection from the state.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Sovereignty</span> Supreme authority within a territory, as well as external autonomy from other states

Sovereignty is the defining authority within individual consciousness, social construct, or territory. Sovereignty entails hierarchy within the state, as well as external autonomy for states. In any state, sovereignty is assigned to the person, body, or institution that has the ultimate authority over other people in order to establish a law or change an existing law. In political theory, sovereignty is a substantive term designating supreme legitimate authority over some polity. In international law, sovereignty is the exercise of power by a state. De jure sovereignty refers to the legal right to do so; de facto sovereignty refers to the factual ability to do so. This can become an issue of special concern upon the failure of the usual expectation that de jure and de facto sovereignty exist at the place and time of concern, and reside within the same organization.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Totalitarianism</span> Extreme form of authoritarianism

Totalitarianism is a form of government and a political system that prohibits all opposition parties, outlaws individual and group opposition to the state and its claims, and exercises an extremely high if not complete degree of control and regulation over public and private life. It is regarded as the most extreme and complete form of authoritarianism. In totalitarian states, political power is often held by autocrats, such as dictators and absolute monarchs, who employ all-encompassing campaigns in which propaganda is broadcast by state-controlled mass media in order to control the citizenry. By 1950, the term and concept of totalitarianism entered mainstream Western political discourse. Furthermore this era also saw anti-communist and McCarthyist political movements intensify and use the concept of totalitarianism as a tool to convert pre-World War II anti-fascism into Cold War anti-communism.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Hannah Arendt</span> German-American political theorist and philosopher (1906–1975)

Hannah Arendt was a political philosopher, author, and Holocaust survivor. She is widely considered to be one of the most influential political theorists of the 20th century.

A failed state is a political body that has disintegrated to a point where basic conditions and responsibilities of a sovereign government no longer function properly. A state can also fail if the government loses its legitimacy even if it is performing its functions properly. For a stable state, it is necessary for the government to enjoy both effectiveness and legitimacy. The Fund for Peace characterizes a failed state as having the following characteristics:

Charismatic authority is a concept of leadership developed by the German sociologist Max Weber. It involves a type of organization or a type of leadership in which authority derives from the charisma of the leader. This stands in contrast to two other types of authority: legal authority and traditional authority. Each of the three types forms part of Max Weber's tripartite classification of authority.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Carl Schmitt</span> German jurist and political theorist (1888–1985)

Carl Schmitt was a German jurist, political theorist, and prominent member of the Nazi Party. Schmitt wrote extensively about the effective wielding of political power. A conservative theorist, he is noted as a critic of parliamentary democracy, liberalism, and cosmopolitanism, and his work has been a major influence on subsequent political theory, legal theory, continental philosophy, and political theology, but its value and significance are controversial, mainly due to his intellectual support for and active involvement with Nazism. Schmitt's work has attracted the attention of numerous philosophers and political theorists, including Giorgio Agamben, Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, Susan Buck-Morss, Jacques Derrida, Waldemar Gurian, Carlo Galli, Jaime Guzmán, Jürgen Habermas, Friedrich Hayek, Reinhart Koselleck, Chantal Mouffe, Antonio Negri, Leo Strauss, Adrian Vermeule, and Slavoj Žižek, among others.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Legitimacy (political)</span> Right and acceptance of an authority

In political science, legitimacy is the right and acceptance of an authority, usually a governing law or a regime. Whereas authority denotes a specific position in an established government, the term legitimacy denotes a system of government—wherein government denotes "sphere of influence". An authority viewed as legitimate often has the right and justification to exercise power. Political legitimacy is considered a basic condition for governing, without which a government will suffer legislative deadlock(s) and collapse. In political systems where this is not the case, unpopular regimes survive because they are considered legitimate by a small, influential elite. In Chinese political philosophy, since the historical period of the Zhou Dynasty, the political legitimacy of a ruler and government was derived from the Mandate of Heaven, and unjust rulers who lost said mandate therefore lost the right to rule the people.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Social philosophy</span> Branch of philosophy

Social philosophy examines questions about the foundations of social institutions, social behavior, and interpretations of society in terms of ethical values rather than empirical relations. Social philosophers emphasize understanding the social contexts for political, legal, moral and cultural questions, and the development of novel theoretical frameworks, from social ontology to care ethics to cosmopolitan theories of democracy, natural law, human rights, gender equity and global justice.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Alexandre Kojève</span> Russian-born French philosopher and statesman

Alexandre Kojève was a Russian-born French philosopher and statesman whose philosophical seminars had an immense influence on 20th-century French philosophy, particularly via his integration of Hegelian concepts into twentieth-century continental philosophy. As a statesman in the French government, he was instrumental in the formation of the European Union.

Rational-legal authority is a form of leadership in which the authority of an organization or a ruling regime is largely tied to legal rationality, legal legitimacy and bureaucracy. The majority of the modern states of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries are rational-legal authorities, according to those who use this form of classification.

Max Weber distinguished three ideal types of legitimate political leadership, domination and authority. He wrote about these three types of domination in both his essay The Three Types of Legitimate Rule which was published in his masterwork Economy and Society, and in his classic speech "Politics as a Vocation".

  1. charismatic authority,
  2. traditional authority and
  3. rational-legal authority.

Legitimation or legitimisation is the act of providing legitimacy. Legitimation in the social sciences refers to the process whereby an act, process, or ideology becomes legitimate by its attachment to norms and values within a given society. It is the process of making something acceptable and normative to a group or audience.

<i>Auctoritas</i> Roman prestige; contrast with power, imperium

Auctoritas is a Latin word which is the origin of English "authority". While historically its use in English was restricted to discussions of the political history of Rome, the beginning of phenomenological philosophy in the 20th century expanded the use of the word.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Legitimation crisis</span> Decline of trust in authority

Legitimation crisis refers to a decline in the confidence of administrative functions, institutions, or leadership. The term was first introduced in 1973 by Jürgen Habermas, a German sociologist and philosopher. Habermas expanded upon the concept, claiming that with a legitimation crisis, an institution or organization does not have the administrative capabilities to maintain or establish structures effective in achieving their end goals. The term itself has been generalized by other scholars to refer not only to the political realm, but to organizational and institutional structures as well. While there is not unanimity among social scientists when claiming that a legitimation crisis exists, a predominant way of measuring a legitimation crisis is to consider public attitudes toward the organization in question.

Articles in social and political philosophy include:

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Authority (sociology)</span> The legitimate power which one person or a group holds and exercises over another

In sociology, authority is the legitimate or socially approved power which one person or a group possesses and practices over another. The element of legitimacy is vital to the notion of authority and is the main means by which authority is distinguished from the more general concept of power.

This is an index of articles in jurisprudence.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Comparison of Nazism and Stalinism</span>

Some authors have carried out comparisons of Nazism and Stalinism. They have considered the similarities and differences between the two ideologies and political systems, the relationship between the two regimes, and why both came to prominence simultaneously. During the 20th century, the comparison of Nazism and Stalinism was made on totalitarianism, ideology, and personality cult. Both regimes were seen in contrast to the liberal democratic Western world, emphasizing the similarities between the two.

Post-truth is a term that refers to the 21st century widespread documentation of and concern about disputes over public truth claims. The term's academic development refers to the theories and research that explain the historically specific causes and the effects of the phenomenon.


  1. Bealey, Frank (1999). The Blackwell Dictionary of Political Science: A User's Guide to Its Terms . pp.  22–23. ISBN   0-631-20694-9.
  2. The New Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought Third Edition, Allan Bullock and Stephen Trombley, Eds. p. 115.
  3. The New Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought Third Edition, Allan Bullock and Stephen Trombley, Eds. pp. 677–678.
  4. Widyono, Benny (Oct 2014). "United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC)".
  5. Krause, George A. (2010). Durant, Robert F. (ed.). "Legislative Delegation of Authority to Bureaucratic Agencies". The Oxford Handbook of American Bureaucracy. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 524.
  6. Glanville, Luke (2016). Bellamy, Alex J. (ed.). "Sovereignty". The Oxford Handbook of the Responsibility to Protect. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 153.
  7. Laitin, David (1998). "Toward a Political Science Discipline: Authority Patterns Revisited". Comparative Political Studies. 31 (4): 423–443. doi:10.1177/0010414098031004002. S2CID   146736449.
  8. Cristi, Renato (2005). Hegel on Freedom and Authority. Cardiff, Wales: University of Wales Press.
  9. Bloom, Howard (2010). The Genius of the Beast: a radical re-vision of capitalism . Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books. p.  186. ISBN   978-1-59102-754-6. To validate an argument, we refer back to our ancestors – or to someone who, while still alive, has already garnered the sort of authority only ancestors normally have.
  10. Guelzo, Allen C. (2012). Lincoln Speeches. New York: Penguin Books. p. xxi.
  11. Guelzo, Allen C. (2012). Lincoln Speeches. New York: Penguin Books. p. 47.
  12. Guelzo, Allen C. (2012). Lincoln Speeches. New York: Penguin Books. p. 48.
  13. 1 2 John Ferejohn (2004). The Authority of Regulation and the Control of Regulators. Droit et économie de la régulation. pp. 35–37. ISBN   9782724686463. OCLC   7292576035. Archived from the original on October 3, 2020 via].

Further reading