The G20: Meetings and Other Docoments
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G-20: Meetings and Other Documents

The G-7, the Financial Stability Forum, the G-20,
and the Politics of International Financial Regulation

Tony Porter
Department of Political Science
McMaster University
Hamilton, ON L8S 4M4, Canada
905-525-9140 x23899

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Legitimacy in Contemporary Societies

Contemporary social scientific theorizing has gone well beyond Weber's influential identification of three types of legitimacy--traditional, rational and charismatic. Weber's approach can be criticized both for the arbitrary, incomplete, and under theorized character of this trichotomy and for his overemphasis on followers' belief in legitimacy at the expense of more independent criteria (Beetham, 1991: 8-9). An alternative traditional approach, which is to focus solely on legality, is also problematic since it obscures the question of why some laws continue to be accepted while others lose support. Moreover in our contemporary world there are other sources of legitimacy than formal law such as science.

Beetham (1991) usefully argues that for power to be fully legitimate "three conditions are required: its conformity to established rules; the justifiability of the rules by reference to shared beliefs; the express consent of the subordinate, or of the most significant among them, to the particular relations of power" (1991: 19). This approach subsumes more traditional emphases on belief or law but also provides more basis for critically and independently examining these. Beetham's goal is to provide an approach which is valid across time and space. This means, however, that these criteria are too abstract to be more than a useful starting point for a meaningful examination of legitimacy in particular social settings.

Other theorists have focused more directly on the specific ways in which legitimacy is produced in our contemporary world. An assumption is that there is a profound change in the shift from tradition to modernity. In traditional society order was seen as an expression of forces, such as God or nature, which were independent of human volition. However "today a very broad range of private activities and social practices must be co-ordinated by conscious means, and this extends indefinitely the range of practices and standards in need of legitimation. The conventionalization of social life thus simultaneously extends the scope of legitimation and shakes the ground upon which it seeks to stand" (Connolly, 1984a: 6). Three important post-traditional themes stand out: the economy; science; and democracy. I shall examine each in turn.

There are four related ways in which the contemporary economy can be seen as contributing to the legitimacy of political and social relations. The first is its effective performance. Connolly (1984b) has commented on the centrality of productivity for the American civilization which "seeks to sustain an economy of growth, so that each generation can be more prosperous, secure and comfortable than its predecessor" (p. 227). Growth supplanted other ideals in the legitimization of communist regimes as well, and its faltering has contributed to their downfall. But in liberal capitalist societies the legitimizing effects of economic growth has been linked in powerful ways to a more general commitment to "performance ideology" (Habermas, 1984: 149) (the merit principle; a pragmatic can-do orientation) and to possessive individualism (Habermas, 1984: 150) which assumes that social practices should be judged with reference to the degree to which they satisfy the needs of individual.

The second legitimizing effect of the economy is its apparent naturalness. Economic forces, because of their connection to the material world, already can be more easily characterized as natural than political institutions. Liberal economic theory, from Adam Smith's invisible hand through more sophisticated neoclassical models of market relations, have sought to identify dynamics that operate independent of conscious human will. Like traditional forms of legitimation, then, these foster acceptance of social order by making it appear to be a inevitable reflection of nature.

A third legitimizing effect of the market economy is its characterization as private. Fundamental to liberal ideology is the public/private distinction: the belief that private matters are of concern to the individuals involved in them only and are not the proper subject for public policy. This dramatically constricts the range of activities which require legitimation. In the 1970s Habermas argued that the increased involvement of the state in the economy posed a challenge to the state's legitimacy but subsequently the state's withdrawal could be seen as easing this potential problem.

A fourth legitimizing effect of the market economy is its characterization as fair. Market transactions are seen as voluntary exchanges of items of equal value. They are seen as open to all participants, as rewarding participants appropriately for effort expended, and, due to the convergence of competitive prices, including that of labour, as fostering equality. Thus both the process and outcomes of market interactions are characterized as fair. Problems such as monopoly, predatory behaviour, or exploitation are seen as aberrant distortions of the underlying pure market forces.

These four features of contemporary economies do not just legitimize economic relations, but political relations as well. The responsibility of the state for the economy, and thus its need for legitimacy is limited by these features. When the market economy works well the liberal state can enjoy legitimacy from association with it. Social problems, if they can be linked to the effects of market forces, can be treated as natural, inevitable, or the responsibility of individuals, not associated with power, and thereby not creating a need for legitimation.

Science and technical knowledge has also become a powerful source of legitimacy in our contemporary world. Their legitimizing effects parallel the four identified for the economy, in part because of the degree to which economics has come to be seen as a science. Science creates legitimacy as a result of its performance: its accomplishments in curing disease, in harnessing the atom and so on. It is seen as an expression or reflection of the natural world and thereby free of power and its need for legitimization. The scientific and the technical, while not private, are seen as non-political, and as matters that are properly the concern only of experts and not of the public more generally. This applies to technical expertise within the administration of the state as well as to science more generally. Due to its openness to criticism and challenge on the basis of agreed standards science is seen as reasonable and fair. More generally science enjoys its association with the production of knowledge which has always been a source of awe and authority.

The third post-traditional theme in the study of legitimacy, democracy, plays a unique role. There are numerous features of democracy that contribute to its legitimizing capacity: its foundation in an explicit set of constitutional rules; the fairness inherent in its representational aspirations; and its openness to participation and to opposition. Habermas (1998) has argued that it is the discursive dimension of democracy--its insistence that policies should be subject to open debate where proponents are required to justify them on the basis of agreed reasonable principles--that is most important. Law, which is itself central to legitimacy, is legitimized by the democratic procedures through which it is created.

These three themes, economy, science, and democracy, work together and echo each other in ways which enhance their independent legitimizing effects. All three subject powerful or authoritative actors to open challenge and appear to allow them to maintain their positions based on their performance within a set of agreed rules and against agreed criteria. All three operate relatively autonomously thereby reducing the complexity and extent of practices needing legitimation. All three involve claims that they benefit society as a whole and not just the powerful. And all three, by remaining in principle open to the involvement of all, provide opportunities for those other than the powerful, by participating, to demonstrate consent. These forms of legitimation differ sharply from traditional themes such as ascription.

There is much more that could be said about the points made above. Each of these forms of legitimation has been subject to increasing stress in late modernity. And the relevance of each, or of legitimacy in general, can be challenged by those claiming that analysis of self-interested bargaining is sufficient for understanding social relations. Rather than pursuing these questions immediately I will do so in the course of examination of the relevance of these and other features of legitimacy at the international level, a task to which I now turn.

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