Legitimacy Matters

Life is full of trade-offs. In order to get more of one good thing, we often must get less of something else.

Attacks on authorities and institutions are a prime example. They force us to make a trade-off between order and freedom. Both are needed for a healthy society.

To cooperate for mutual benefit, people have to know the terms of their cooperation. What are they required to do for others? What are others required to do for them? What’s normal and expected in specific situations?

As a result, any society needs three things:

  • Rules: The rules can be formal or informal, embodied in law or merely in custom. They should cover most of the common situations of social interaction.
  • Authorities: Some institutions must publicly define, interpret, and enforce the rules.
  • Legitimacy: Most people must believe they have a duty to obey the rules. They must also believe that authorities have a right to define and enforce the rules.

Not even the most intrusive totalitarian state can put police on every street corner to enforce the rules. For any society to work, most people must follow the rules voluntarily most of the time. And they’ll only be willing to do it if they believe the rules and authorities are legitimate.

Therein lies the problem. On one hand, people need to believe in their rules and authorities. On the other hand, the rules are made by and the authorities are staffed by imperfect people. Those people make mistakes. Sometimes they even commit crimes.

Too much criticism of rules and authorities (even if it’s valid) tears down their legitimacy and disrupts society. Too little criticism leaves mistakes uncorrected and lawbreaking officials unpunished. In the long run, that also leads to social breakdown.

We have to find a balance between the two extremes.

One recent example of the extreme approach is Singapore’s prosecution of activist Jolovan Wham for “scandalizing the judiciary.” In a Facebook post, he made what Americans would see as a fairly innocuous remark that:

“Malaysia’s judges were more independent than Singapore’s when it comes to cases with political implications.”

Another man, John Tan, said on Facebook that he agreed with Wham. Tan was found guilty of the same offense. According to the government:

“By publishing their Facebook posts, Mr. Wham and Mr. Tan impugned the impartiality and integrity of Singapore’s judicial system and posed a risk that public confidence in the administration of justice would be undermined …”

And here’s the thing: Both Wham and the government are probably right. In every country with a legal system, judges are sometimes influenced by political considerations — “except when they’re not.” But even if judges are inevitably biased “sometimes,” a functioning society needs a majority of its people to believe judges are fair most of the time. Otherwise, they won’t be willing to abide by the decisions of the courts, and society starts to break down.

What applies to judges applies to other officials and institutions. President Trump’s attacks on the FBI have hurt its legitimacy, just as did President Obama’s attacks on local police forces. Democratic politicians’ attacks on the U.S. Supreme Court and Justice Kavanaugh have hurt the court’s legitimacy. News media personalities who suggest that some politicians and government officials are “traitors” have hurt the legitimacy of our government. Even if all the criticisms on all sides were true, they would still diminish the trust and cooperation that are need to make society work.

So should critics just shut up? Of course not. But people need a way to correct flaws and abuses without destabilizing the social order. It will be interesting to see what develops.

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
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