Two Concepts of Legitimacy

I think it might be useful at this point to introduce into our conversation a distinction employed by Campbell Sharman in his excellent IRPP paper on reforming the Senate. The distinction is between input legitimacy and output legitimacy. 

Input legitimacy relates to the functioning and machinery of an institution: how members are selected, the procedures by which decisions are made and power exercised, and so on. Output legitimacy refers to the public assessment of the relevance and quality of the institution’s performance. As Sharman writes, “Both forms of legitimacy express public assessment of the worth of an institution, but input legitimacy is a matter of the design of the institution while output legitimacy must be earned by the institution’s performance.”

Coyne has written elsewhere on this site, and I obviously agree with him, that — despite the prime minister’s best attempts at convincing Canadians otherwise — there is nothing remotely illegitimate about the coalition’s attempt at taking the reins of parliament. It is, as far as I’m concerned, little more than the predictable contortions of parliament in an extended minority situation. 

But obviously many people feel otherwise, and while I’m tempted to dismiss this as a failure of basic knowledge of civics amongst Canadians, that misses an element that Sharman’s distinction teases out, which is the requirement, ultimately, that the output of an institution be acceptable to the people. Both forms of legitimacy are important, but there is the question of priority. Normally, we tend to think that IL determines OL: That is, we accept the outcome of an election, or a vote in parliament, or what have you, because it has high input legitimacy. To put it another way, as long as the rules are followed we accept the result. 

But it is not that simple, and in the end, I’m inclined to think that output legitimacy has priority. That is, a certain institutional design will only be (input) legitimate to the extent to which it tends on the whole  (note the hedging here) to produce acceptable (that is, output-legitimate) outcomes.  

So where does that leave us? I think, with a caution to both sides. Harper says he will use all legal means to maintain power. But that has its dangers, for both himself and his party (ask Paul Martin) but also for public perceptions of the system as a whole. Just because something is legal doesn’t make it the right thing to do, and nobody like a stickler for the rules. Clinging to power through any means possible can bring the system into disrepute. 

For the coalition: They need to be aware of and sensitive to public opinion. Just because they can take down the government and seize power does not mean it is in their own long term interest (again, for the Libs I think it is a BAD IDEA), and, worse, it might serve to undermine the input-legitimacy of the system in the public mind. That is, the public (e.g. Jon Kay) might look at what is going on and think: Any system that allows this to happen can’t be legitimate. 

There is a lot at stake here. Our parliamentary system is old, established, and far more flexible than people give it credit for. It has consistently given Canadians effective and reasonably stable government while doing so with a large degree of IL and OL (pace Coyne’s distressing habit of declaring our federal elections borderline illegitimate). But every institution has its limits. The more these maniacs twist and pull and bend with no regard for the stresses they are imposing, the more dangerous this all becomes.

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