The concept of legitimacy is central to organizations in many ways, most obviously in terms of who has the right to tell others what to do, and what kinds of things this applies to. That is one reason why many books about organization studies – including mine – begin by talking about Max Weber’s account of authority (in the meaning of legitimate power).
I was thinking about this in relation to the current political row in the UK about the House of Lords’ rejection of a House of Commons policy to cut tax credits for people in work. I won’t discuss the tax credits issue itself - important as it is – it is the issue of legitimacy that I want to look at. Britain, famously and unusually, has an ‘unwritten constitution’, and so relies on custom and precedent to determine what is legitimate. In this way, it could be seen as a system based partly on what Weber called ‘traditional authority’ in contrast to the rational-legal authority of written constitutions.
Since the House of Commons is elected on the basis of, certainly, a system of rules and to this extent rational-legal, and the House of Lords is an unelected body the government have been keen to say that the Lords’ action was illegitimate. More precisely, the argument is that it is illegitimate because it violates the ‘convention’ that the Lords will not block financial legislation or legislation deriving from an elected government’s manifesto.
But convention is a rather slippery terrain. As regards tax credits, what was blocked by the Lords was not, technically, financial legislation but, rather, a ‘statutory instrument’. It’s an arcane point that needn’t detain us except to the extent that it shows the imprecision of ‘tradition’ as a legitimating principle. On the other side of the coin, the House of Commons, whilst certainly elected, has a government majority on the basis that the ruling Conservative Party achieved 36.9% of the votes cast on a turnout of 66.1% of the electorate. In other words, 24.4% of the electorate voted for them.
Moreover, although the Conservative Party manifesto promised extensive cuts to the welfare budget, it did not specify that these would include cuts to the tax credits of working people. It is at least questionable whether they would have been elected had they done so. My sense is that what the electorate thought was meant by welfare cuts was cuts to benefits of people out of work. One might say so much the worse for them, but even so the point is that democratic consent to this policy looks rather threadbare.
The imprecision of party manifestos is by no means new. For example, at the 2010 election the Conservative manifesto promised that there would be no top-down re-organization of the NHS. In government (with Liberal Democrat support) there was massive and controversial re-organization. The disjuncture became an argument about what ‘top-down’ meant. At one time these manifestos consisted of quite precise lists of policies. Now, they tend to be much vaguer. And this in turn links with a far more ‘presidential’ approach to UK politics in which the persona of the leader is the key issue, even though the ‘constitutional convention’ is that a House of Commons is elected constituency by constituency and the leader is the person who can command a majority. Thus a key aspect of the last election was which of David Cameron or Ed Miliband was the most ‘prime ministerial’. So, here, what is at stake is what Weber called ‘charismatic authority’.
This complex mish-mash of rational-legal, traditional and charismatic authority makes for plenty of political spectacle and debate. But I wonder if it does not also show the limitations of Weber’s ideal-types of authority? Isn’t it actually rather common for, say, a CEO to draw selectively and eclectically on the different types*? And more challengingly, isn’t the idea that there is a distinction of authority and power a rather dubious one? After all, whatever is decided about tax credits, those affected by or hostile to the changes will ultimately be forced to accept them.
On a more personal note, this week I was awarded the title Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences (FAcSS). This, too, is about legitimate authority – the Academy’s legitimacy to award the title, the legitimacy it bestows on me. But of course I am just shoehorning this in to make it fit with the rest of the post. The truth is that I am rather pleased and want to boast about it.
*Something like this has always been the critique of ideal-type reasoning and the defence, of course, is that these are ideal-types, for conceptual clarification rather than empirical claims. I suppose that my point is that in political debates like this one an ideal-type is treated, at least by implication, as an empirical claim.