What is the difference between a government and a criminal gang or protection racket such as the mafia? In a word, it is legitimacy. In practice, this vague notion suggests that people view the government—its institutional composition, its personnel, and its conduct—as morally acceptable or proper, whereas they view the mafia—at least in its conduct—as morally unacceptable or improper.

Many governments claim that their legitimacy rests on the Lockean grounds of consent of the governed, but in practice this consent proves to be highly problematic because the governed population is rarely, if ever, presented with the choice of being ruled or not being ruled under the established governmental institutions. Regimes use public education, propaganda, judicial decisions (rendered by the government’s own judges), political elections, public hearings, and other artifices to imbue the people with the idea that their rulers are legitimate authorities taking legitimate actions. Many if not all of these justificatory efforts are highly questionable, if not entirely bogus, and none of them represents decisive evidence of the people’s consent to be ruled as they are by the rulers who dominate them.

In reality, the so-called consent of the governed consists for the most part of mere acquiescence—a widespread resignation that signifies only that most people would rather endure the government’s robbery and bullying than openly resist it at the risk of injury, imprisonment, and death. The people’s acquiescence, in many cases a sort of sullen, resentful, implicit surrender, hardly endows the rulers with any moral approbation. Indeed, even in the countries with the greatest degree of popular political participation, the bulk of the people may look upon the governing politicians and bureaucrats with ill-concealed contempt and sometimes with openly expressed hatred.

If a government succeeds in remaining in power for a long time, however, many people may come to accept it simply by force of habit. In some eyes, it will be seen as beyond question merely because it has “always been there” and its actions amount to “how things are.” People of conservative cast of mind may actually believe that antiquity alone is not only a sufficient but also a compelling basis for the approval and preservation of established institutions. Even great liberal philosophers such as David Hume and, in our own time, Anthony de Jasay consider rights to be nothing but conventions that have somehow become established over long periods and thereby have acquired their bona fides and their demonstrated evolutionary fitness in a society’s successful functioning. To be sure, many people get used to things as they are, even when these things are irrational and abusive.

In any event, the ostensible bright-line demarcation of legitimacy that separates the government from ordinary criminal gangs fades and blurs under close inspection. It does not disappear completely, however, because for some portion of the ruled population, the government’s efforts to sell its legitimacy do succeed. These beguiled individuals are the ones who volunteer for service in the government’s palace guards—its armed forces, police, and other agencies of physical violence and intimidation—and who willingly send their children to be sacrificed in the government’s foreign wars and other adventures. They provide, as it were, legions of “essential idiots,” parallel to the “useful idiots” among the intelligentsia, who fight on the government’s behalf in the war of ideas and ideologies.

From one country to another, the division of society between the hopelessly beguiled and the merely intimidated varies greatly. All governments seek to move the demarcation line so that a greater proportion of those it rules falls in the former class. Thus, all governments carry on ceaseless efforts to convince the people of their competence, good intentions, close representation of the people’s desires, and morally impeccable standards of conduct. Although these efforts provide little more than fodder for bitter laughter among individuals with open eyes and unsullied hearts, they succeed often enough to keep the rulers afloat as they continue their plunder and repression. Their prevailing legitimacy, however, is rarely anything more than ersatz or counterfeit as a sound foundation for a government whose composition, personnel, and conduct are generally desired and approved.

Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at the Independent Institute, author or editor of over fourteen Independent books, and Editor at Large of Independent’s quarterly journal The Independent Review.
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