The Peristaltic Testator (peristaltor) wrote in talk_politics,
The Peristaltic Testator
peristaltor
talk_politics

That Bastard Legitimacy

My brother used a term last weekend that got stuck in my craw. He was referring to political arguments online, and noted that this or that policy is or isn't "legitimate." The more I thought about it, the more I think that this term is almost completely inappropriate when discussing political realities.

So, which brother is right? From the handy pop-up dictionary used by lazy everywhere, we get the gist of the word. It means:

  • conforming to the law or to rules. . . .
  • able to be defended with logic or justification. . . .
  • (of a child) born of parent lawfully married to each other.
  • (of a sovereign) having a title based on strict hereditary right. . . .


Let's wade into the weeds a bit. Any political action—let's take tax collection as an example—should conform to the laws or rules governing and enabling the tax collecting entity. If it does not or is found not to (through judicial review, for example), then the action is clearly illegitimate and should be changed. It wouldn't matter if the policy could "be defended with logic or justification," since that form of legitimacy applies only to logical argument. Such logical argument could be made in a court of law, of course, but outside these precedings such argument would be only appropriate in, say, an informal discussion of politics (not that that ever happens).

The sovereign bit is more interesting. We abandoned the sovereigns over two hundred years ago here in the former agricultural colonies, so this need not apply. Right? So what constitutes a legitimate ruler in a sovereign-free political structure? Here we need to be a bit recursive. Instead of seeing our rulers as endowed by God with the anointment of office, we need to see our rulers as established in office according to the rules and laws established previously. If one or more of those laws are revoked or modified, the legitimacy of office holders becomes that for judicial review.

In the past, things were simpler. "[One] famous English legend holds that when, around 1290, King Edward I asked his lords to produce documents to demonstrate by what right they held their franchises (or "liberties"), the Earl Warenne presented the king only with his rusty sword. Like Roman dominium, it was less a right than a power, and a power exercised first and foremost over people. . . ." (David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, Melville House Printing, 2011, p. 205.)

Therefore, if a political bloc can take (for example) taxes from its people, taking those taxes is a legitimate action. This simplification goes a long way to explaining the powers of a government established after a revolution or coup, or that of an unpopular but still sitting leader.

Or think of the rationale of a revolting body in upending the political tradition that founded them. I realized recently that the US's own Declaration of Independence from monarchic control is a fine example of question begging. Consider:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.


To a monarch like George III, this was just so much bullshit. He was, after all, born into a line of sovereigns and therefore hardly man like all others. (Recall how "legitimate" applies to sovereign power!) Sovereigns, furthermore, hold in their power the liberty to deny their subjects to those aspects of life these upstarts overseas have declared are "unalienable!" To continue the Graeber quote above, kings had the right to take life itself: ". . . which is why in the Middle Ages it was common to speak of the 'liberty of the gallows,' meaning a lord's right to maintain his own private place of execution." (Graeber, ibid.)

For any subject of a king to "hold these truths to be self-evident" is for that someone to say, simply, that the established order of political hierarchy is complete crap, and that George III himself is a bit of a loser for thinking otherwise. Consider this modification, as the declaration must have seen to Georgie Boy:

We with tongues that properly taste know this to be true, that all turds are a delight unto the palette, and that the most excellent taste of shit is further enhanced with such other bodily excretions as piss (like a fine wine, that one!), bile and the delectable pus that oozes from especially advanced infections.


So, (again, for example) is taxation "legitimate" or something else, like "coercion?" Unless you're preparing a legal brief and checking the logical soundness of your argument, I very much doubt such terms apply to the legal standing of the situation. Yes, you could wax eloquently about the unfairness of taxes on online fora, but that doesn't change a single line in any country's long and illustrious legal fiction called law.
Tags: language, opinion, story
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