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Arthur Isak Applbaum presents LEGITIMACY: THE RIGHT TO RULE IN A WANTON WORLD at Harvard Book Store

November 15, 2019 | 3:00 pm


Harvard Book Store and the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics welcome ARTHUR ISAK APPLBAUM—Adams Professor of Democratic Values at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government—for a discussion of his new book, Legitimacy: The Right to Rule in a Wanton World.

About Legitimacy

What makes a government legitimate? The dominant view is that public officials have the right to rule us, even if they are unfair or unfit, as long as they gain power through procedures traceable to the consent of the governed. In this rigorous and timely study, Arthur Isak Applbaum argues that adherence to procedure is not enough: even a properly chosen government does not rule legitimately if it fails to protect basic rights, to treat its citizens as political equals, or to act coherently.

How are we to reconcile every person’s entitlement to freedom with the necessity of coercive law? Applbaum’s answer is that a government legitimately governs its citizens only if the government is a free group agent constituted by free citizens. To be a such a group agent, a government must uphold three principles. The liberty principle, requiring that the basic rights of citizens be secured, is necessary to protect against inhumanity, a tyranny in practice. The equality principle, requiring that citizens have equal say in selecting who governs, is necessary to protect against despotism, a tyranny in title. The agency principle, requiring that a government’s actions reflect its decisions and its decisions reflect its reasons, is necessary to protect against wantonism, a tyranny of unreason.

Today, Applbaum writes, the greatest threat to the established democracies is neither inhumanity nor despotism but wantonism, the domination of citizens by incoherent, inconstant, and incontinent rulers. A government that cannot govern itself cannot legitimately govern others.

Praise for Legitimacy

“Few words are more important in politics than ‘legitimacy,’ and few are so flagrantly misused. Arthur Applbaum sets us straight, with an exemplary display of philosophical clarity, passion, and insight. Once you’ve read him, you will never misuse the word again.” ―Michael Ignatieff, President, Central European University

“Applbaum’s new philosophical account of political legitimacy may be the deepest and most illuminating we have. It shows how a careful understanding of legitimacy―engaging with the best philosophy, as well as with historical events―gives it powerful leverage. The result has philosophical and practical implications about obligation, coercion, resistance, foreign intervention, despotism, money, and lies. It should be, and will be, widely studied.” ―David Estlund, author of Democratic Authority

“In this magnificent analysis of the frequently used but imperfectly understood concept of legitimacy, Arthur Applbaum argues that the greatest danger to democratic legitimacy today is wantonism, the tyranny of unreason. Along the way he engagingly exposes common mistakes about legitimacy, and develops his own distinctive theory, based on the idea of free group agency. The theory has striking implications for a wide range of questions in political theory and practice, including representation, campaign promises and electoral mandates, civil disobedience, political dissent, and foreign intervention.” ―Dennis F. Thompson, Harvard University


November 15, 2019
3:00 pm
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Did You Know?

Certain books were “banned in Boston” at least as far back as 1651, when one William Pynchon wrote a book criticizing Puritanism.