They ask us who should rule. The democratically supported leader? The rich? The military? The noble blood? The studious and educated? The intelligent? The virtuous? The proletariat? The people?

My answer is simple: The best qualification for rule is power. You can’t rule without power. And with it, the question is only how you will. Let’s have rule by the powerful. But there’s a kink: the biggest concentrations of power come from our public legitimacy narratives, so we’re back: Who shall we empower, and how does legitimacy work?

But the simplistic answer is still valuable. Starting with who has power instantly increases the realism of our theorizing, and reduces the dimensionality of the problem. If we are not starting with actual power, then nothing can connect with reality. After all, it is power that puts any program into motion.

Without first considering power, you get trapped in tropes like “legitimate power comes from the consent of the people”. Oh yeah? What power actually backs that up?

In the far out view, the answer is simple: the regime has power. Power exists. It concentrates in the hands of a few. They organize into a regime, and impose themselves on the rest of us. Fighting them isn’t going to work, and only spills blood sweat and tears pointlessly. They impose a limited sphere of action on the rest of us, in accordance with their purposes for us, which we would do best to obediently submit to and work within.

That alone answers a huge fraction of the problem. Most people have no power, and basically have their fate dictated to them by the powers that be, both human, and natural. It’s like our subjection to the laws of nature; power just is, and if we cannot defeat or evade, we must obey. Thus we can hit a huge fraction of the legitimacy question with this simple move. Respect the simplistic answer.

In the sphere of immediate pure power, legitimacy doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter what people think if you can overcome them. But the sphere of pure dominance power cannot ever be the entire picture. There are two places where legitimacy is important:

The first one is internal legitimacy. To actually organize enough power to be able to impose it on the outside world, you have to organize multiple people. The power of the regime comes from a bunch of smaller and harder sources of power which need to be wielded individually. One man can’t by himself own enough power to deal with the rest of the world as a total tyrant. He needs trusted agents, and allies. Together they form the regime that might be able to impose itself on everyone else.

In feudal times, this was quite clear: there was the violent power of the lords and knights, and the social and psychological power of the church and clergy. Together they constructed a regime whereby they used their power together to impose a common vision and order on society.

Each sub-agent of the regime may have a different reason for supporting the order of the regime, but they by and large find some reason to enthusiastically add their effort and power to the pot. This isn’t because they would be persecuted if they didn’t go along with the regime. It’s because the regime offers a means by which they accomplish their goals in the world.

People want more than just their own safety and wealth. They want to live in an orderly, ambitious, and just society. They want to contribute meaningfully to great things. They see themselves as fitting into larger social structure and movements. This is usually denied by individualist accounts of society, but it is critical to understanding legitimacy.

In the perfect limit, imagine that society was a single entity, with a single plan. The plan has many parts, most of them mundane matters about how certain subcomponents of its capability and power portfolio are to be maintained and used. The individuals in that society take on the role of managing those subcomponents, and thus of maintaining the parts of the plan that pertain to them. Because of communication difficulties between minds, the plan is broken up into relatively compartmentalized parts. But the pieces of the plan all fit together into a whole, with little conflict and working at cross purposes between different parts of the plan. This is the idealized structure that individual contributors to the regime fit themselves into.

Of course that doesn’t obtain in practice, but the legitimacy of the regime is basically dependent on its subcomponents believing in its plan enough, or some version of its plan, to adopt it as their own, or integrate their own plans with it.

The legitimacy of particular rulers and particular decision-making processes will simply be how well they cohere with the legitimacy narrative, or the purpose, of the regime. If the regime has a great story for what it’s doing, but it’s leadership basically doesn’t care or isn’t up to the job, then there would be questions about that. If they’re doing fine at it, then there would not be.

Some diversity of lines of legitimacy is possible between different elements in the regime. The military might believe one story, the official media another, the academics another, etc. Multiple lines of legitimacy can support the same regime. But if those stories are too divergent, the regime will start to have coherence problems. Not everyone has to be on the same legitimacy narrative, but the different legitimacy narratives should be as compatible as possible. The difference has to be made up with raw coercive power.

The second important component of legitimacy is external legitimacy. Even if you have your subjects mostly in line, if you really piss them off, and they really don’t believe you have the right to rule, someone might organize them to cause trouble.

“Work to rule”, and striking in general, is a great example of this. You can’t deal with workers on a purely exploitive and adversarial power basis. If you try, they will find ways to mess it up for you. At least they won’t be motivated to do a good job. You actually want a more consciously symbiotic relationship, that they understand as legitimate, or at least don’t violently react against.

In other words, the logic of the internal legitimacy narrative of the regime, whereby the holders of real power are motivated to participate positively, also applies to external legitimacy. The regime’s internal story for why it is legitimate may be sufficient, or may need supplementation.

The regime’s internal story will tend to be focused on higher things: the flow of history, the purpose of society, the ideal of good government, collective self actualization, etc. That’s because the basic human needs, like food and security, are relatively easy to solve given a bit of power, and once they are solved, you turn to those higher concerns. But the subject population is a bit harder to feed. If you don’t feed them etc, they aren’t going to be able to believe in your regime no matter how philosophically correct it is; they will be consumed with more immediate concerns. So this is another aspect of legitimacy: you’re not going to get very far if people don’t have their basic needs met.

Most of the question of who rules can be answered with raw power, but there is always some remainder that is necessarily about ideology. But that too is fairly simple: the government is legitimate if its members believe in upholding their part of its operations, believe in its mission, and mostly believe in its leadership. The question of mass legitimacy is similar, being about whether people are able to believe in the regime as a vehicle for the fulfillment of their goals. If they aren’t being fed, for example, or the regime’s plan does not include them in a positive way, they can’t.

Usually, people approach this topic with magical formulas like the “consent of the governed” and “human rights” which are not natural cause and effect matters, but more like ideological conditions which need to be enforced by outside intervention. That is, the usual stories we have about legitimacy are not actually theories of the thing itself, but themselves stories about the legitimacy of intervention against another government.

So who should rule? Whoever can organize the power. Who should the power follow? Whoever can provide a convincing program of organization and pursuit of good things, as judged by the holders of power. It’s fairly simple, actually. In practice, we can say much more, but this is the basis.