Legitimate Power without Authority: The Transmission Model


Some authors have argued that legitimacy without authority is possible, though their work has not found much uptake in mainstream political philosophy. I provide an improved model how legitimate political institutions without authority are possible, the Transmission Model, which I couple with a thin substantive position, the Moral Value View. I defend the model against three common objections.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Figure 1
Figure 2
Figure 3
Figure 4


  1. 1.

    This definition is sometimes given in more specific terms, as the permissibility of coercion. But as political institutions also operate in non-coercive ways, I refrain from this further narrowing. Cf. William Edmundson, Three Anarchical Fallacies: An Essay on Political Authority (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), chaps. 4–6; Christopher Morris, ‘State Coercion and Force’, Social Philosophy and Policy 29(1) (2012): pp. 28–49; Colin Bird, ‘Coercion and Public Justification’, Politics, Philosophy & Economics 13(3) (2014): pp. 189–214.

  2. 2.

    I follow the usage in Allen Buchanan, ‘Political Legitimacy and Democracy’, Ethics 112(4) (2002): pp. 689–719; David Estlund, Democratic Authority: A Philosophical Framework (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008); Jon Garthoff, ‘Legitimacy Is Not Authority’, Law and Philosophy 29(6) (2010): pp. 669–694; Niko Kolodny, ‘Rule Over None I: What Justifies Democracy?’, Philosophy & Public Affairs 42(3) (2014): pp. 195–229.

  3. 3.

    E.g., Joseph Raz, The Morality of Freedom (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986); Leslie Green, The Authority of the State (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988); John Simmons, ‘Justification and Legitimacy’, Ethics 109(4) (1999): pp. 739–771.

  4. 4.

    E.g., Robert Ladenson, ‘In Defense of a Hobbesian Conception of Law’, Philosophy & Public Affairs 9(2) (1980): pp. 134–159; Rolf Sartorius, ‘Political Authority and Political Obligation’, Virginia Law Review 67(1) (1981): pp. 3–17; Edmundson, Three Anarchical Fallacies, pp. 48–61; Christopher Morris, An Essay on the Modern State (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998); Christopher Morris, ‘Natural Rights and Political Legitimacy’, Social Philosophy and Policy 22(1) (2005): pp. 314–329; Garthoff, ‘Legitimacy Is Not Authority’; N. P. Adams, ‘Institutional Legitimacy’, Journal of Political Philosophy 26(1) (2018): pp. 84–102.

  5. 5.

    William Edmundson, ‘Political Authority, Moral Powers and the Intrinsic Value of Obedience’, Oxford Journal of Legal Studies 30(1) (2010): pp. 179–191; Stephen Perry, ‘Political Authority and Political Obligation’, Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Law 2 (2013): pp. 1–74; David Enoch, ‘Authority and Reason-Giving’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 89(2) (2014): pp. 296–332.

  6. 6.

    Judith Jarvis Thomson, The Realm of Rights (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1990).

  7. 7.

    William Edmundson, ‘Because I Said So’, Problema: Anuario de Filosofía y Teoría Del Derecho 7 (2013): pp. 41–61.

  8. 8.

    Interestingly, this is not true on actual-consent accounts of political authority, on which it needs to be established on a person-by-person basis. This shows that consent accounts of authority are importantly different from other substantive explanations of authority. (Cf. Samuel Freeman, ‘Illiberal Libertarians: Why Libertarianism Is Not a Liberal View’, Philosophy & Public Affairs 30(2) (2001): pp. 105–151, at pp. 120–123, 138–149.) These differences are not important for my purposes, however.

  9. 9.

    The idea of (merely) triggering duties, in contrast to having authority, I take from Enoch, ‘Authority and Reason-Giving’. For similar distinctions, see Estlund, Democratic Authority, p. 43; Edmundson, ‘Political Authority, Moral Powers and the Intrinsic Value of Obedience’; Bas van der Vossen, ‘Imposing Duties and Original Appropriation’, Journal of Political Philosophy 23(1) (2015): pp. 64–85. The idea of ‘transmission’ is inspired by Garthoff’s discussion of authority (Garthoff, ‘Legitimacy Is Not Authority’, pp. 680, 692), although Garthoff rejects the more instrumentalist approach I advocate here.

  10. 10.

    See Leslie Green, ‘Law, Co-Ordination and the Common Good’, Oxford Journal of Legal Studies 3(3) (1983): pp. 299–324; Donald Regan, ‘Law’s Halo’, Social Philosophy & Policy 4(1) (1986): pp. 15–30; William Boardman, ‘Coordination and the Moral Obligation to Obey the Law’, Ethics 97(3) (1987): pp. 546–557; John Finnis, ‘Law as Co-Ordination’, Ratio Juris 2(1) (1989): pp. 97–104; Jeremy Waldron, Law and Disagreement (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999); Larry Alexander and Emily Sherwin, The Rule of Rules: Morality, Rules, and the Dilemmas of Law (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001); Garthoff, ‘Legitimacy Is Not Authority’; Adams, ‘Institutional Legitimacy’. In the following example, and the claims I make about authority, I heavily build on Matthias Brinkmann, ‘Coordination Cannot Establish Political Authority’, Ratio Juris 31(1) (2018): pp. 49–69.

  11. 11.

    Brinkmann, ‘Coordination Cannot Establish Political Authority’. Similar points are also made in Green, The Authority of the State, p. 113; William Edmundson, ‘Social Meaning, Compliance Conditions, and Law’s Claim to Authority’, Canadian Journal of Law and Jurisprudence 15 (2002): pp. 51–67; Edmundson, ‘Political Authority, Moral Powers and the Intrinsic Value of Obedience’, pp. 188–190; Stephen Perry, ‘Law and Obligation’, American Journal of Jurisprudence 50 (2005): pp. 263–295, at p. 291; Perry, ‘Political Authority and Political Obligation’; and perhaps in Mark Murphy, Natural Law in Jurisprudence and Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 109–111; Garthoff, ‘Legitimacy Is Not Authority’, p. 683.

  12. 12.

    Edmundson, ‘Because I Said So’.

  13. 13.

    Something like the Transmission Model is hinted at in the work of many previous philosophers, especially philosophical anarchists (Regan, ‘Law’s Halo’) and theorists working on authority (Edmundson, ‘Because I Said So’; Enoch, ‘Authority and Reason-Giving’). In that sense, I take this paper to merely make explicit what might be implicit in many strands of previous literature.

  14. 14.

    A duty to comply with a command is different from a duty to obey with a command. Cf. Robert Paul Wolff, In Defense of Anarchism (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), p. 9; Garthoff, ‘Legitimacy Is Not Authority’, pp. 684–685.

  15. 15.

    Some specifications of the Authority Model also tie authority closely to performance – e.g., Raz, The Morality of Freedom.

  16. 16.

    E.g., Arthur Isak Applbaum, ‘Legitimacy without the Duty to Obey’, Philosophy & Public Affairs 38(3) (2010): pp. 215–239; Cord Schmelzle, ‘Zum Begriff politischer Legitimität’, in A. Geis, F. Nullmeier and C. Daase (eds.), Der Aufstieg der Legitimitätspolitik: Rechtfertigung und Kritik politisch-ökonomischer Ordnungen (Baden-Baden: Nomos, 2012), pp. 419–35; Cord Schmelzle, Politische Legitimität und Zerfallene Staatlichkeit (Frankfurt am Main: Campus, 2015); Fabian Wendt, ‘Justice and Political Authority in Left-Libertarianism’, Politics, Philosophy & Economics 14(3) (2015): pp. 316–339; Justin Tosi, ‘The Possibility of a Fair Play Account of Legitimacy’, Ratio 30(1) (2017): pp. 88–99.

  17. 17.

    For some pushback, see Tosi, ‘The Possibility of a Fair Play Account of Legitimacy’.

  18. 18.

    E.g., Wolff, In Defense of Anarchism; Raz, The Morality of Freedom; Green, The Authority of the State; Simmons, ‘Justification and Legitimacy’; George Klosko, Political Obligations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

  19. 19.

    Authors who use comparable definitions are Buchanan, ‘Political Legitimacy and Democracy’; Estlund, Democratic Authority; Garthoff, ‘Legitimacy Is Not Authority’; Kolodny, ‘Rule Over None’. This is not to deny that there are other reasons which should guide our conceptual choice – e.g., their fit with everyday usage.

  20. 20.

    For a critical survey, see John Simmons, ‘The Duty to Obey and Our Natural Moral Duties’, in C. Wellman and J. Simmons, Is There a Duty to Obey the Law? (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), pp. 93–196.

  21. 21.

    Wolff, In Defense of Anarchism.

  22. 22.

    Harry Frankfurt, ‘The Anarchism of Robert Paul Wolff’, Political Theory 1(4) (1973): pp. 405–414; Rex Martin, ‘Wolff’s Defence of Philosophical Anarchism’, Philosophical Quarterly 24 (1974): pp. 140–149.

  23. 23.

    Cf. Matthew Noah Smith, ‘Political Obligation and the Self’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 86(2) (2011): pp. 347–375.

  24. 24.

    Cf. Nikolas Kirby, ‘Two Concepts of Basic Equality’, Res Publica 24(3) (2018): pp. 297–318.

  25. 25.

    The model is not non-hierarchical in all respects. In particular, it allows that some exert de facto power over others. To fully defend the Transmission Model, we would need to show why this type of inequality is not (fundamentally) morally problematic. I do not have the space to do so here.

  26. 26.

    E.g., Morris, An Essay on the Modern State; Bernd Krehoff, ‘Legitimate Political Authority and Sovereignty: Why States Cannot Be the Whole Story’, Res Publica 14(4) (2008): pp. 283–297; Adams, ‘Institutional Legitimacy’.

  27. 27.

    Cf. Andreas Georg Scherer and Guido Palazzo, ‘The New Political Role of Business in a Globalized World: A Review of a New Perspective on CSR and Its Implications for the Firm, Governance, and Democracy’, Journal of Management Studies 48(4) (2011): pp. 899–931.

  28. 28.

    Contra John Finnis, ‘The Authority of Law in the Predicament of Contemporary Social Theory’, Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics & Public Policy 1 (1984): pp. 115-137, at p. 120; cf. Garthoff, ‘Legitimacy Is Not Authority’, p. 677.

  29. 29.

    One defence of MVV (though not under this label) can be found in Allen Buchanan, Justice, Legitimacy, and Self-Determination: Moral Foundations for International Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004). I defend a version of MVV in Matthias Brinkmann, ‘Indirect Instrumentalism about Political Legitimacy’, Moral Philosophy and Politics 6(1) (2019): pp. 175–202, online first at https://doi.org/10.1515/mopp-2018-0024.

  30. 30.

    Cf. Leslie Green, ‘The Duty to Govern’, Legal Theory 13(3–4) (2007): pp. 165–185.

  31. 31.

    Adams calls this meta-coordination (Adams, ‘Institutional Legitimacy’); I call it higher-order coordination in Brinkmann, ‘Coordination Cannot Establish Political Authority’.

  32. 32.

    E.g., Ladenson, ‘In Defense of a Hobbesian Conception of Law’; David Gauthier, Morals by Agreement (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986).

  33. 33.

    E.g., Eric Mack, ‘In Defense of Individualism’, Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 2(2) (1999): pp. 87–115.

  34. 34.

    Samaritan explanations of legitimacy can be understood along such lines – e.g., Christopher Wellman, ‘Liberalism, Samaritanism, and Political Legitimacy’, Philosophy & Public Affairs 25(3) (1996): pp. 211–237; Nicolas Maloberti, ‘Libertarianism and the Possibility of the Legitimate State’, Libertarian Papers 1(5) (2009).

  35. 35.

    E.g., Simmons, ‘Justification and Legitimacy’.

  36. 36.

    See Wendt, ‘Justice and Political Authority in Left-Libertarianism’, for how this tends to get left-libertarians in trouble when they try to justify the legitimate state. For a critique of Simmons, see Thomas Senor, ‘What If There Are No Political Obligations? A Reply to A. J. Simmons’, Philosophy & Public Affairs 16(3) (1987): pp. 260–268.

  37. 37.

    Thomas Christiano, ‘Authority’, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Spring 2013 edition, https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2013/entries/authority/. Cf. Thomas Christiano, The Constitution of Equality: Democratic Authority and Its Limits (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 242.

  38. 38.

    Christiano, ‘Authority’.

  39. 39.

    Schmelzle, ‘Zum Begriff politischer Legitimität’; cf. Raz, The Morality of Freedom, p. 25.

  40. 40.

    Christopher Wellman, ‘Samaritanism and the Duty to Obey the Law’, in C. Wellman and J. Simmons, Is There a Duty to Obey the Law? (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), pp. 3–89, at p. 28; Wendt, ‘Justice and Political Authority in Left-Libertarianism’.

  41. 41.

    Benjamin Bagley has pressed objections against this claim to me in conversation.

  42. 42.

    Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page, ‘Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens’, Perspectives on Politics 12(3) (2014): pp. 564–581.

  43. 43.

    Christopher H. Achen and Larry M. Bartels, Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016).

  44. 44.

    For versions of this claim, see Gerald Postema, ‘Nozick on Liberty, Compensation, and the Individual’s Right to Punish’, Social Theory and Practice 6(3) (1980): pp. 311–337, at pp. 325–328; Senor, ‘What If There Are No Political Obligations?’, p. 265; Christopher Wellman, ‘Rights and State Punishment’, Journal of Philosophy 106(8) (2009): pp. 419–439, at pp. 426–427; Michael Huemer, The Problem of Political Authority: An Examination of the Right to Coerce and the Duty to Obey (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), pp. 98–100.

  45. 45.

    Senor, ‘What If There Are No Political Obligations?’, p. 265.

  46. 46.

    Ryan Gabriel Windeknecht, ‘Law Without Legitimacy or Justification? The Flawed Foundations of Philosophical Anarchism’, Res Publica 18(2) (2011): pp. 173–188, at p. 185.

  47. 47.

    Cf. Tommie Shelby, ‘Justice, Deviance, and the Dark Ghetto’, Philosophy & Public Affairs 35(2) (2007): pp. 126–160.

  48. 48.

    Jeremy Waldron, ‘A Right to Do Wrong’, Ethics 92(1) (1981): pp. 21–39.

  49. 49.

    The same is true of the Authority Model. If A has authority over B, this does not conceptually entail that some third party C cannot also have authority over B, or that A has a right to exclude C from exercising power over B. Thus, I presume that the Authority Model needs to be amended by further substantive moral argument to explain sovereignty. However, if the defender of the Authority Model is allowed to help themselves to such further assumptions, it does not seem particularly problematic if the defender of the Transmission Model does so too.

  50. 50.

    One complication is that the Boy Scouts’ stated mission is to ‘prepare kids for life’, not to enforce justice. This mission creep tends to muddle our intuitions regarding the given case.

  51. 51.

    Ronald Dworkin, Law’s Empire (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1986), p. 191. Similar charges can be found in Senor, ‘What If There Are No Political Obligations?’, p. 264; Edward Harris, ‘Fighting Philosophical Anarchism with Fairness: The Moral Claims of Law in the Liberal State’, Columbia Law Review 91(4) (1991): pp. 919–964; Schmelzle, ‘Zum Begriff politischer Legitimität’; Schmelzle, Politische Legitimität und Zerfallene Staatlichkeit; Fabian Wendt, ‘Political Authority and the Minimal State’, Social Theory and Practice 42(1) (2015): pp. 97–122.

  52. 52.

    Senor, ‘What If There Are No Political Obligations?’; Schmelzle, ‘Zum Begriff politischer Legitimität’. Wendt also offers this objection, though in a specific left-libertarian context (Wendt, ‘Political Authority and the Minimal State’, pp. 119–120).

  53. 53.

    Cf. Enoch, ‘Authority and Reason-Giving’.

  54. 54.

    A full statement of this principle is likely to include further clauses, like a requirement that the costs of interference be proportional to the value promoted. However, I am interested in the structural point here, not a precise statement of the relevant transmission principles.

  55. 55.

    In some cases, the intervention of political institutions might give individuals rights to compensation – e.g., where the state takes via eminent domain, individuals gain a right to appropriate compensation. (I thank Fabian Wendt for this example.) More generally, transmission principles might be coupled with compensation principles: where political institutions coerce individuals on the basis of MVV, they might owe those individuals some compensation – perhaps in the form of a social welfare net. (There is some broad similarity of this position with Thomas Nagel, ‘The Problem of Global Justice’, Philosophy & Public Affairs 33(2) (2005): pp. 113–147.) I will set this issue aside, however.

  56. 56.

    Wellman, ‘Liberalism, Samaritanism, and Political Legitimacy’; Dudley Knowles, ‘Good Samaritans and Good Government’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 112 (2012): pp. 161–178.

  57. 57.

    What is the relationship to natural duties of justice approaches (e.g., Jeremy Waldron, ‘Special Ties and Natural Duties’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 22(1) (1993): pp. 3–30)? The main difference is that a natural duty plays no foundational explanatory role in MVV. The legitimacy of political institutions is explained directly on the basis of the important moral values they promote, not through an intermediate step in which they are seen as fulfilling or serving individual duties. This allows for legitimacy to ‘outrun’ individual duties.

  58. 58.

    The best-developed account can be found in John Tasioulas, ‘On the Foundations of Human Rights’, in R. Cruft, S. M. Liao, and M. Renzo (eds.), Philosophical Foundations of Human Rights (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), pp. 45–70.

  59. 59.

    Cf. Morris, ‘Natural Rights and Political Legitimacy’, who argues that the legitimacy of non-consensual political institutions will be easier to argue for if you accept an interest theory of rights.

  60. 60.

    I owe this comparison to Fabian Wendt.

  61. 61.

    I say ‘political norms’, as political realists might see a disjunction between political and moral norms.

  62. 62.

    This is similar to Mack’s ‘anti-paralysis postulate’, although Mack’s postulate is presented in a much narrower context. See Eric Mack, ‘Nozickian Arguments for the More-than-Minimal State’, in R. Bader and J. Meadowcroft (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 89–115.

  63. 63.

    See Brinkmann, ‘Indirect Instrumentalism about Political Legitimacy’.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Matthias Brinkmann.

Additional information

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

I am thankful to N. P. Adams, Jon Garthoff, Maxime Lepoutre, Cord Schmelzle, and Fabian Wendt for written comments on previous versions of this paper, as well as Daniel Baker and Amin Ebrahimi for discussion.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Brinkmann, M. Legitimate Power without Authority: The Transmission Model. Law and Philos 39, 119–146 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10982-019-09369-z

Download citation