The Three Forms of Authority

Authority, generally, describes the joint rights of decision-making, directing-actions, and demanding-obedience. Absolute authority includes with the rights of authority the power to effect these same rights, through either coercion or enforcement, and possibly both. In other words, the power of authority is enormous, and unchecked it is boundless. That power, as well as its expanse, is defined and limited by the fount from which it originates and the practices that enable its propagation. For these reasons, identifying the source of any given authority is a matter of some great import.


There are three primary bases of authority: (i) tradition-based authority; (ii) charismatic authority; and (iii) rational-legal authority*

  1. Tradition-based authority is legitimized by the historical conduct of common practices (i.e., shared culture). Traditional authority structures relied upon the repetition of practice, not the perfection of-, nor the logical derivation of-sovereignty
  2. Charismatic authority is legitimized by the personality and leadership qualities of the ruling individual. It springs from the voluntary abandonment of individualized thought and action. Such authority is characterized by the efficacy of Influencers, and ultimately relies upon unquestioned acceptance and martial enforcement if it is to be sustained.
  3. Rational-legal authority is legitimized not upon the talents of any given speaker but rather relies upon the order and form of the speech itself. Hence, the content of the speech outweighs the delivery, and the vessel is less important than its contents. Rational-legal authority derives its powers from the system of bureaucracy and legality which in turn is a product of successful combination of the dogmatic with the pragmatic accomplished through the implementation of logical debate and procedural formalities.



Legal rationality and legitimacy

Under rational-legal authority, legitimacy is seen as coming from a legal order and the laws that have been enacted in it (see also natural law and legal positivism).

Weber defined legal order as a system where the rules are enacted and obeyed as legitimate because they are in line with other laws on how they can be enacted and how they should be obeyed. Further, they are enforced by a government that monopolizes their enactment and the legitimate use of physical force.

Emergence of the modern state

Weber wrote that the modern state based on rational-legal authority emerged from the patrimonial and feudal struggle for power (see traditional authority) uniquely in the Occidental civilization. The prerequisites for the modern Western state are:

  • monopolization by central authority of the means of administration and control based on a centralized and stable system of taxation and use of physical force
  • monopolization of legislative
  • organisation of an officialdom, dependent upon the central authority

Weber argued that some of those attributes have existed in various time or places, but together they existed only in Occidental civilization. The conditions that favoured this were

  • emergence of rational-legal rationality (various status groups in the Occident promoted that emergence)
  • emergence of modern officialdom (bureaucracy), which required
    • development of the money economy, where officials are compensated in money instead of kind (usually land grants)
    • quantitative and qualitative expansion of administrative tasks
    • centralisation and increased efficiency of administration.

Weber's belief that rational-legal authority did not exist in Imperial China has been heavily criticized, and does not have many supporters in the early 21st century.

Modern state

According to Max Weber, a modern state exists where a political community has:

  • an administrative and legal order that has been created and can be changed by legislation that also determines its role
  • binding authority over citizens and actions in its jurisdiction
  • the right to legitimately use the physical force in its jurisdiction

An important attribute of Weber's definition of a modern state was that it is a bureaucracy.

The vast majority of the modern states from the 20th century onward fall under the rational-legal authority category.

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