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Authority is the legitimate power which one person or group possesses and practices over another. [1] A civil state usually makes this formal by way of a judicial branch and an executive branch of government. [2] In the exercise of governance, the terms authority and power sometimes are inaccurately used as synonyms. The term authority identifies political legitimacy, which grants and justifies the right to exercise power of government; and the term power identifies the ability to accomplish an authorized goal, by way either of compliance or of obedience; hence, authority is the power to make decisions and the right 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 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 remarkable texts.

In political philosophy, the jurisdiction of political authority, the location of sovereignty, the balancing 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, and that government should limit its authority accordingly, known as limited government.

In the discussion regarding the legitimacy of political authority, there are two beliefs at the respective ends of the spectrum. The first is the belief in the absolute freedom of the individual, otherwise known as political anarchism. The second is the belief that there must be a central authority in the form of a sovereign that claims ownership and control over the masses. This belief is known as statism. Sovereignty, in modern terms, can refer either to the adherence to a form of sovereign rule or the individual sovereignty, or autonomy, of a nation-state. The argument for political anarchy and anti-statism 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]

The 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 treatise called Basilikon Doron and The Trve Lawe of free Monarchies: Or, The Reciprock and Mvtvall Dvtie Betwixt a free King, and his naturall Subiectes which advocated his right to rule on the basis of the concept of the divine right of kings, a theological concept that has basis in multiple religions, but in this case, Christianity, tracing this right to the apostolic succession. The King in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth states are considered the foundations of judicial, legislative and executive authority.

The 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," President Abraham 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 Abraham Lincoln saw it by a Republican nation and its people. This was because, as Abraham Lincoln also declared, "No man is good enough to govern another man, without that other's consent." [12]

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.

Sovereignty Concept that a state or governing body has the right and power to govern itself without outside interference

Sovereignty is the full right and power of a governing body over itself, without any interference from outside sources or bodies. In political theory, sovereignty is a substantive term designating supreme authority over some polity. In international law, the important concept of sovereignty refers to the exercise of power by a state. De jure sovereignty refers to the legal right to do so; de facto sovereignty refers to the ability, in fact, 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.

Totalitarianism Political system in which the state holds total authority

Totalitarianism is a political system or a form of government that prohibits opposition parties, restricts individual opposition to the state and its claims, and exercises an extremely high degree of control over public and private life. It is regarded as the most extreme and complete form of authoritarianism. Political power in totalitarian states has often been held by autocrats which employ all-encompassing propaganda campaigns broadcast by state-controlled mass media.

Hannah Arendt German-American Jewish philosopher and political theorist

Johanna "Hannah" Cohn Arendt, also known as Hannah Arendt Bluecher, was a German-American philosopher and political theorist. Her many books and articles on topics ranging from totalitarianism to epistemology have had a lasting influence on political theory. Arendt is widely considered one of the most important political philosophers of the twentieth century.

Statism belief that the state should control either economic or social policy, or both, to some degree

In political science, statism is the doctrine that the political authority of the state is legitimate to some degree. This may include economic and social policy, especially in regard to taxation and the means of production.

Popular sovereignty is the principle that the authority of a state and its government are created and sustained by the consent of its people, through their elected representatives, who are the source of all political power. It is closely associated with social contract philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Popular sovereignty expresses a concept and does not necessarily reflect or describe a political reality. Benjamin Franklin expressed the concept when he wrote, "In free governments, the rulers are the servants and the people their superiors and sovereigns".

Lincoln–Douglas debates A series of seven debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas

The Lincoln–Douglas debates were a series of seven debates between Abraham Lincoln, the Republican Party candidate for the United States Senate from Illinois, and incumbent Senator Stephen Douglas, the Democratic Party candidate. At the time, senators were elected by state legislatures, so Lincoln and Douglas were trying to win control of the Illinois General Assembly for their respective parties. The debates were widely reported on nationally, using the newly-invented telegraph. They previewed the issues that Lincoln later faced after his victory in the 1860 presidential election. Illinois was a free state, and the main issue discussed in all seven debates was slavery in the United States, particularly its future expansion into new territories.

Legitimacy (political) right and acceptance of an authority

In political science, legitimacy is the right and acceptance of an authority, usually a governing law or a régime. 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 régimes survive because they are considered legitimate by a small, influential élite. 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.

Social philosophy branch of philosophy

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

Heinrich Blücher German poet and philosopher

Heinrich Friedrich Ernst Blücher was a German poet and philosopher. He was the second husband of Hannah Arendt who he had first met in Paris in 1936. During his life in America, Blücher traveled in popular academic circles and appears prominently in the lives of various New York intellectuals.

Rational-legal authority form of leadership in which the authority of an organization or a ruling regime is largely tied to legal rationality, legal legitimacy and bureaucracy

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.

In political philosophy, limited government is where the government is empowered by law from a starting point of having no power, or where governmental power is restricted by law, usually in a written constitution. It is a key concept in the history of liberalism.

Harry V. Jaffa 20th and 21st-century American historian and professor

Harry Victor Jaffa was an American political philosopher, historian, columnist and professor. He was a professor emeritus at Claremont McKenna College and Claremont Graduate University and a distinguished fellow of the Claremont Institute. Robert P. Kraynak says his "life work was to develop an American application of Leo Strauss's revival of natural-right philosophy against the relativism and nihilism of our times."

Abraham Lincoln's position on slavery is one of the most discussed aspects of his life. Lincoln often expressed moral opposition to slavery in public and private. "If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong", he stated in a now-famous quote. "I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel." However, the question of what to do about it, how to end it given that it was so firmly embedded in the nation's constitutional framework and in the economy of much of the country, was complex and politically challenging.

Stephen David Krasner is an international relations professor at Stanford University and is a former Director of Policy Planning at the United States Department of State, a position he held from 2005 until April 2007 while on leave from Stanford. He is a senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution.

Lincolns House Divided Speech speech

The House Divided Speech was an address given by Abraham Lincoln, later President of the United States, on June 16, 1858, at what was then the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield, after he had accepted the Illinois Republican Party's nomination as that state's US senator. The speech became the launching point for his unsuccessful campaign for the seat, held by Stephen A. Douglas; the campaign would climax with the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858.


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.

Religious views of Abraham Lincoln

The religious views of Abraham Lincoln are a matter of interest among scholars and the public. Lincoln grew up in a highly religious Baptist family. He never joined any Church, and was a skeptic as a young man and sometimes ridiculed revivalists. He frequently referred to God and had a deep knowledge of the Bible, often quoting it. Lincoln attended Protestant church services with his wife and children, and after two of them died he became more intensely concerned with religion. Some argue that Lincoln was neither a Christian believer nor a secular freethinker.

Popular sovereignty is a doctrine rooted in the belief that each citizen has sovereignty over themselves. Citizens may unite and offer to delegate a portion of their sovereign powers and duties to those who wish to serve as officers of the state, contingent on the officers agreeing to serve according to the will of the people. In the United States, the term has been used to express this concept in constitutional law. It was also used during the 19th century in reference to a proposed solution to the debate over the expansion of slavery. The proposal would have given the power to determine the legality of slavery to the inhabitants of the territory seeking statehood, rather than to Congress.

Comparison of Nazism and Stalinism Comparison of ideologies

A number of authors have carried out comparisons of Nazism and Stalinism in which they have considered the similarities and differences of the two ideologies and political systems, what relationship existed between the two regimes, and why both of them came to prominence at the same time. During the 20th century, the comparison of Nazism and Stalinism was made on the topics of totalitarianism, ideology, and personality cult. Both regimes were seen in contrast to the liberal West, with an emphasis on the similarities between the two. The political scientists Zbigniew Brzezinski, Hannah Arendt and Carl Friedrich and historian Robert Conquest were prominent advocates of applying the "totalitarian" concept to compare Nazism and Stalinism.


  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. p.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, NY: Oxford University Press. p. 524.
  6. Glanville, Luke (2016). Bellamy, Alex J. (ed.). "Sovereignty". The Oxford Handbook of the Responsibility to Protect. New York, NY: 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.
  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, NY: Penguin Books. pp. xxi.
  11. Guelzo, Allen C. (2012). Lincoln Speeches. New York, NY: Penguin Books. p. 47.
  12. Guelzo, Allen C. (2012). Lincoln Speeches. New York, NY: Penguin Books. p. 48.

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