Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Print publication year: 2012
  • Online publication date: January 2013

Chapter 3 - Political legitimacy


In the last chapter we focused on issues of social justice: that is, justice in the relations between people within a state, including relations mediated by their belonging to groups and bodies of various kinds. According to the theory developed, justice requires the state to promote the freedom as non-domination of all its citizens – broadly, all adult, able-minded and more or less permanent residents – safeguarding their fundamental liberties on the basis of public laws and norms. This focus on relations amongst citizens leaves out of consideration the relations between citizens as a whole and the state itself. It ignores the question of whether the state operates with political legitimacy in imposing a social order, however just that order might turn out to be. It is one thing to argue that the social order imposed by a state is just, it is quite another to argue that the political imposition of that order is legitimate.

Social justice does not entail political legitimacy, by this account, nor does political legitimacy entail social justice. Thus, to take the second dissociation first, a state might be fully legitimate, by whatever criterion, and yet not succeed in furthering the cause of social justice very well; it might support misconceived, if not ill-willed, policies. It is a failure of this kind that Rousseau had in mind when he acknowledged the possibility that the perfectly legitimate regime – in his terms, the regime that seeks to enact the general will – may still go astray: ‘By itself, the people always wills the good, but by itself it does not always see it’ (1997: II.6.10).

Recommend this book

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this book to your organisation's collection.

On the People's Terms
  • Online ISBN: 9781139017428
  • Book DOI:
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to *