Power & Authority: Rational-Legal Authority Research Paper Starter

Power & Authority: Rational-Legal Authority

(Research Starters)

The individual who would create an influential profile of the types of authority present in government, the German sociologist Max Weber, had seen his share of charismatic rulers and, as such, preferred the rule of law. Among his three types of legitimate rule was the bureaucracy. This paper shall take an extensive look at Weber's theories and ideals of legitimized authority in the modern world, as well as a few examples of actual governmental systems operating in the postmodern world with active bureaucracies as their centerpieces.

Keywords Bureaucracy; Cameralism; Rational-legal; Legimitacy; Wertrationell; Zweckrationell



Shortly after the Declaration of Independence was adopted, state assemblies hurried home from Philadelphia to draft their own state constitutions and relevant legislation. Ironically, the delegation that had to travel the least took a rather long time to attend to this task. After 12 weeks of debates, the Pennsylvania assembly could not come to an agreement on its own constitution. Benjamin Franklin observed that Pennsylvanians were going about their daily lives without any leadership or bureaucratic infrastructure. "Gentlemen," he said to his Pennsylvania colleagues, "you can see we have been living under anarchy, yet the business of living has gone on as usual. Be careful; if our debates go on too much longer, people may come to see that they can get along very well without us" ("Government in action," 2012).

Indeed, for many people, the very word "bureaucracy" has a negative connotation. To them it means excessive paperwork, massive buildings packed with redundant employees, and endless exchanges of interoffice memoranda. Legendary congressman and senator Eugene McCarthy once summarized the public's negative view of the administrative wing of government: "The only thing that saves us from bureaucracy is inefficiency," he said, adding, "An efficient bureaucracy is the greatest threat to liberty" (Columbia World of Quotations, 1996).

This unflattering public impression of the administrative function of government is largely based on its often sluggish procedures. The idea of bureaucracy fails to inspire the way a charismatic leader can. Still, though high-profile politicians may create the laws, in a democratic government it is up to the bureaucracy to implement those laws.

The individual who would create an influential profile of the types of authority present in government, the German sociologist Max Weber, had seen his share of charismatic rulers and remained preferential to the rule of law. Among his three types of legitimate rule was the bureaucracy.

Max Weber's Germany

Throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century, Germany was in a state of flux. The "Iron Chancellor," Otto von Bismarck, had successfully unified a disparate collection of unaligned monarchies and enclaves into a consolidated nation under Prussian rule. Much of this unity stemmed from the nationalist fervor he inspired among these groups, and with his growing power and militarism came a national ethic of authoritarianism and discipline.

Meanwhile, the German emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II, was also beginning to consolidate his power. The relationship between Wilhelm and Bismarck seemed mutually beneficial at first, but as time passed, Bismarck's domestic policies began to prove ineffectual. The kaiser, whom Bismarck himself felt was threatened by the chancellor's control over the German administrative government, moved to capitalize on Bismarck's perceived weakness in controlling a limping infrastructure. Backed into a corner by the kaiser, Bismarck resigned as chancellor. Unfortunately, the kaiser's move had the opposite effect from the one he had anticipated; Bismarck's "weak" domestic policy making would be missed in the new Germany, and the German government, which had thrived on a tight bureaucracy helmed by the former chancellor, fell into disarray (Rempel, 2007).

That Weber could endorse one approach to political and social development as effective for Germany and look with disdain on another is unremarkable. That both of these approaches were manifest in one individual, Otto von Bismarck, is rather unusual. Indeed, Bismarck's approach to unifying the disjointed Germanic region was centered on the establishment of an extensive administrative network that followed hierarchical protocols. Unfortunately, as he embraced his power, Bismarck's continued dominance over that hierarchy left little room for flexibility among the governed, Weber believed. In Weber's view, when the chancellor departed, the people, who were used to Bismarck's "iron hand" as their sole authority, remained apathetic, and as a result, Germany was unable to develop a democratic way of life for itself (Jones, 2001).


It is understandable that Max Weber should offer his types of legitimate authority as a model for future (and, in his hopeful mind, successful) regimes. Caught amid a clear power struggle between the chancellor and the kaiser, Weber could clearly see a variety of forms of power, all of which were legitimized by a populace that seemed content with any one of them.

Weber envisioned three types of legitimate authority. The first two of these concepts resemble the types of leadership with which the Germans were familiar prior to and following the late Bismarck years. One is traditional rule, which is legitimized on the basis of rite or custom. In this case, the mantle of leadership is passed on within a royal family, for example, or via a lineage that dates back to alleged divine or supernatural occurrences, such as descent from the prophet Muhammad or from the presumed human incarnation of a god. Power is granted to an individual because it is considered his or her preordained right.

In the second of Weber's ideals, legitimate authority is granted to the charismatic individual. This type of leader rules on the basis of his or her ability to inspire devotion among the populace. Bismarck's charisma played a significant role in unifying Germany. Several decades later, Adolf Hitler's charisma would also shape Germany's course. As the object of a cult of personality, a charismatic leader, at least in the Weberian model, is not dissimilar from a traditional ruler; he or she is a singular leader who stands either alone or atop a hierarchy.

The third of Weber's types of legitimate authority is the one on which this paper will next expound. First, this essay will provide an extensive examination of the concept of rational-legal, or bureaucratic, rule. Next, it will provide examples of such rule from the modern era.

The Rule of Law

In his essay "The Three Types of Legitimate Rule," wherein he first proffered his ideals on this subject, Weber stresses that an authority's legitimacy is found not in the authority itself but rather within the people who endorse the authority. "Legitimate" authority, therefore, is installed and maintained less violently than illegitimate authority, providing that the governed do not grow weary of the authority.

In the case of legitimate traditional authority, the people endorse the ruler because they have always followed whoever was in that position of power. Charismatic authority is legitimized because the people perceive the charismatic leader to have extraordinary or even superhuman qualities.

The rule of law, on the other hand, is legitimate because the people believe it is rational. Weber believed that this rationality comes in two forms: zweckrationell, or "goal-rational," and wertrationell, or "value-rational." A zweckrationell ruling entity warrants legitimacy from a society if it demonstrates a capacity for achieving that society's goals and stated purposes, while a wertrationell entity is endorsed because it operates within the framework of the society's moral and ethical codes. By combining the two concepts, Weber shows that rational authority is achievable...

(The entire section is 3530 words.)