Legitimate political authority and sovereignty: Why states cannot be the whole story

Res Publica 14 (4):283-297 (2008)
States are believed to be the paradigmatic instances of legitimate political authority. But is their prominence justified? The classic concept of state sovereignty predicts the danger of a fatal deadlock among conflicting authorities unless there is an ultimate authority within a given jurisdiction. This scenario is misguided because the notion of an ultimate authority is conceptually unclear. The exercise of authority is multidimensional and multiattributive, and to understand the relations among authorities we need to analyse this complexity into its different aspects. Instead of ultimate authorities we can have actors endowed with superior authority over others in one regard, but not necessarily in another. And this limited superiority is sufficient for resolving conflicts. There is no need for ultimate authorities. Having discarded the notion of sovereignty we can embrace a different conception of legitimate authority, one that is not interested in the pedigree of actors, but in their capacity to serve its subjects. If states wish to retain their central role in the domain of political authority, they will have to earn it.
Keywords Legitimacy  Authority  Sovereignty  States  International organisations  Joseph Raz
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DOI 10.1007/s11158-008-9073-z
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