2.2. What Makes a Government a Government?

The question of what violence is legitimate or illegitimate is the very essence of politics.

We’ve been living in empires and nations since the beginning of civilization.

As of today, there are 195 countries in the world.

But what exactly is the point of having them? Why are they here? What do they do for us?

A lot of people have tried to describe exactly what countries are. But there’s one definition that’s a hundred years old, and is still considered by many to be the best.

It comes from Max Weber, one of the founders of modern sociology and political science.

He argued that what makes a government a government is that it has a “monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force” in its territory.

This is a big deal, because there are a few really important conclusions we can make from that definition.

First, it means that legitimate violence is the very essence of government.

You don’t need a legislative or executive or judicial branch. All you need to have a government is this unique, special relationship with the use of legitimate violence in your territory.

In this day and age, the government is more likely to make you pay a fine or put you in jail than commit actual violence against you. But that’s just because those are the penalties we consider legitimate. And those laws and penalties are still backed by the legitimate violence of the U.S. government. Keep breaking the law, refusing to pay those fines, or escaping jail time…and eventually, you’re going to be targeted for violence.

Second, it means that the question of what violence is legitimate or illegitimate is the very essence of politics.

Political debates are about the legitimacy of what the government can and can’t do, should and shouldn’t do, must or must not do. That’s what all the controversial issues—from police brutality and immigration to healthcare or abortion rights—have in common.

It’s a very powerful capability governments have. It’s the sort of thing that can be easily abused. But it’s also a capability that rests on legitimacy. When governments lose legitimacy among their people, they lose the very source of their power.

That’s why, for instance, the nonviolent civil rights movement spearheaded by Martin Luther King was so successful. It revealed very clearly to the American people how unjustly and illegitimately the government was using its monopoly of violence.

Finally, the fact that governments are territorially bounded is a big deal.

Governments are extremely powerful within their borders. But with the exception of the most powerful countries in the world, they don’t have much influence outside their borders.

That’s important to recognize, because as the economy has gone global, corporations are essentially able to blackmail countries into adopting business-friendly policies.

Big corporations can pretty much say, “Hey, give us what we want, or we’ll go somewhere where we don’t have to pay taxes, or clean up pollution, or comply with labor regulations.”

Because the economy is global, but our politics are still national, corporations have been able to largely impose their will on governments, even when those policies harm the people in those countries.

That’s a really big deal…and something that’s going to require a global response.


This is the 30th in a series of over 150 videos about how to create real, lasting social change. Click here for a list of all titles, videos, and transcripts.

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