Smith, drawing from Machiavelli’s The Prince, discusses two essential ingredients of successful states.

George H. Smith was formerly Senior Research Fellow for the Institute for Humane Studies, a lecturer on American History for Cato Summer Seminars, and Executive Editor of Knowledge Products. Smith’s fourth and most recent book, The System of Liberty, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2013.

In his classic work, The Prince, Machiavelli (1469–1527) argued that “government consists in nothing else but so controlling subjects that they shall neither be able to, nor have cause to, do you harm.” This entails that a successful ruler must win the “friendship of the people.” A ruler can never make himself secure if he “has the public as a whole for his enemy.”

The most successful rulers, according to Machiavelli, are those who are widely viewed as legitimate, if only tacitly, by their subjects. This has little if anything to do with abstract theories of justice. Most people “ask only not to be oppressed.” If a government allows most of its citizens to live comfortably and securely, and if that government at least gives the appearance of maintaining justice, then the people will rest content with the status quo and refrain from peering beyond the facade to the reality of political rule. As Machiavelli tells his Prince: “Everyone sees what you appear to be, few experience what you really are.” Thus, while appearing to be a man of virtue, the prince should use whatever means are necessary–however brutal and deceitful they may be–to strengthen his power.

The best kind of legitimacy is achieved when the people feel utterly dependent on their government, especially for protection against foreign conquest. A prince who is skilled in the art of war will be regarded as indispensable to the defense of his country, so the people will always support him–provided that he does not provoke their wrath by imposing burdensome taxes. The prince who can provide a frugal defense is most likely to win the allegiance and cooperation of his subjects.

The successful prince, says Machiavelli, cannot depend solely on the love of his subjects; they must also fear him. Love will not insure a general obedience; only the dread of punishment can accomplish this. Thus does Machiavelli isolate two psychological features of political power: love and fear–or, as I shall call them, legitimacy and credibility.

A state requires both legitimacy and credibility. Legitimacy is public recognition of the state’s authority; this causes many people to obey the state as a matter of principle because they presume it is justified. Credibility is public belief in the state’s power; this causes many people to obey the state from fear because they believe in its ability to apprehend and punish lawbreakers.

Although these categories often blend together in practice, they represent conceptually distinct motivations for obedience. Suppose I disagree with the content of a law but obey it nonetheless. If I obey because I respect the authority of the state, then this is the motive of legitimacy–an example of de jure power. If I obey for no reason other than fear of punishment, then this is the motive of credibility–an example of de facto power.

A state is deemed “legitimate” if a significant number of people believe that it conforms to their moral and social norms. Legitimacy enables a state to rule through the power of moral authority. Authority is political gravity, the invisible power of attraction that pulls people to the state voluntarily. Coercion, in contrast, is the visible power of violence that pushes people to the state against their wills.

Legitimacy (as I use the term here) is a subjective phenomenon, a matter of more or less, that defies exact (cardinal) measurement. If we wish to measure legitimacy (or any social phenomena), we must conjure up a metaphorical ruler; in this case, let 1 equal pure coercion and let 10 equal pure authority. The legitimacy of a particular state will fall somewhere on this continuum. A state with high legitimacy will enjoy the compliance that comes with authority, whereas a state with low legitimacy will confront widespread disobedience and perhaps even resistance.

It is important to distinguish legitimacy from moral justification. I personally do not recognize any state as justified, but I do regard many states as legitimate (in the social sense). Whether a state is legitimate is a question for the sociologist; whether a state is justified is a question for the political philosopher. Legitimacy pertains to what people subjectively believe, not to the truth or validity of their beliefs. The sociologist uses legitimacy as a conceptual tool to explain why some people obey the state willingly, and this value‐​free procedure is unobjectionable, even to anarchists.

It is often said that a state cannot sustain itself without a high degree of legitimacy because no state, however powerful and ruthless, can control and coerce masses of unwilling subjects. But is this true? Dictatorial and totalitarian regimes have sometimes ruled without much legitimacy, resorting to brutal punishments and massive killings instead. It is true that a government cannot literally force every person to obey every law; but, as the political scientist Gaetano Mosca (1858–1941) pointed out in The Ruling Class, the state is an organized minority vis‐​a‐​vis society, which is an unorganized majority. The state can coordinate its actions, apply violence selectively and systematically, and thereby intimidate the majority of people, who will tend to comply from fear that they may be the next victims. A state can enforce its will through the continuous threat of violence against recalcitrant subjects. The consequence is a continuous fear throughout society, which is what I mean by the motive of credibility.

Like legitimacy, credibility is a subjective phenomenon. Legitimacy, as I said, is a public belief, whether correct or incorrect, that a state is justified. Likewise, credibility is a public belief, whether correct or incorrect, that a state can effectively enforce its will. And just as a state can use smoke and mirrors to establish its legitimacy, so it can use smoke and mirrors to establish its credibility.

It has often been asserted (e.g., by David Hume) that political obedience is typically habitual. The average person obeys the state as a matter of routine and social convention. This habitual compliance, according to Hume, will continue so long as most people believe that their government, however corrupt or inefficient, serves a socially useful function. This perception of social utility causes most people to cooperate willingly with their government. Although Hume denies that this cooperation can be called “consent,” he does assert that most people acquiesce to their own political subordination.

The problem with this argument should be obvious, given our previous discussion of credibility as a motive for obedience. Granted, most people may obey the state from habit rather than from conscious deliberation, but this fact alone does not tell us why this habit tends to develop. I may routinely obey the decrees of government because I believe in its legitimacy, or I may routinely obey because I believe in its credibility. If prisoners in Nazi concentration camps developed the habit of obedience, this was because they feared the brutality of their captors, not because they believed in the legitimacy of the Nazi regime. If there was any perception of utility involved here, it was not social but personal, namely, the “utility” of avoiding pain, torture, and death.

Those commentators who wax eloquent on the supposed legitimacy of western democracies should explain the high degree of noncompliance with traffic laws, drug laws, tax laws, and more. Most drivers routinely exceed speed limits if they believe that they won’t get caught; or, if they do get caught occasionally, that the punishment does not outweigh the personal benefits of violating the decree of their “legitimate” government. Conversely, if most people refrain from committing murder, this is because they believe murder is morally wrong, regardless of what their government may say.

If a government were to decree that no citizen shall eat babies for breakfast, then rest assured that some political “scientist” will eventually study the “babies‐​for‐​breakfast problem.” Then, after concluding that no one actually eats babies for breakfast, this person will congratulate the beneficent rulers and wise social engineers for a job well done.