Politics in Minutes (2016)

Political authority

The ‘social contract’ between the governed and the government concerns, on the one hand, the rights of the individual and, on the other, the power of the state. With the consensus of the individuals, a ruler or government is given the authority to govern, make laws, levy taxes and so on. This is often formalized explicitly in a constitution, which details the extent of the government’s authority and its obligations.

A government can rely on a number of autonomous agencies – police and armed forces, and revenue collection and border agencies – to enforce its will. However, the legitimacy of a government’s authority is dependent on it not abusing these powers, as well as fulfilling its side of the agreement. Despotic leaders or corrupt governments will be reluctant to relinquish power, and abuse the authority given by the people to hold on to it. Regular elections, which can be seen as renewals of the agreement, allow a degree of accountability, as can the separation of powers (see here).