What Is Rational-Legal Authority?

Exterior Image of the U.S. Supreme Court

Win McNamee / Getty

Rational-legal authority is a form of leadership in which the authority of a ruling government regime comes from a system of bureaucracy, public choice, and legality. Rational-legal authority is thus based on a belief in the legitimacy of a society’s laws and rules and the right of its leaders, acting under these rules, to make decisions and set policy. The rational-legal system of authority is typically used in modern democratic countries, such as the United States, where popularly elected officials enact laws that citizens are obliged to follow. 

Key Takeaways: Rational-Legal Authority

  • Rational-legal authority is a form of government in which decisions are made based on laws and regulations, rather than on the whims of those in power.
  • This type of authority is usually found in modern democracies, where elected officials pass laws that everyone is obliged to follow.
  • The rational-legal system contrasts with other forms of government, such as those based on tradition, ancestry, or personal charisma.
  • Rational-legal authority is more resistant to corruption and abuse, as decision-makers can be held accountable to impersonal laws rather than to their personal interests.

In a rational-legal system, the legitimacy of authority comes from the law itself, rather than from the personality or character of those who enforce it. As a result, rational-legal authority tends to be more resistant to corruption and abuse, as decision-makers can be held accountable to objectively written laws rather than to their personal interests.

Deriving Authority 

In sociology, authority refers to the ability to have one’s will carried out despite the resistance of others. For example, a police officer’s authority to issue speeding tickets or a parent’s authority to order their teenage children to be home by midnight or else. If a child in middle school gives her lunch to a bully who threatens her, that again is an example of the use of power, or, in this case, the misuse of power.

Years ago, German sociologist, historian, jurist, and political economist, Max Weber identified legitimate authority as a special type of power considered just and appropriate by those over whom the power is exercised. If society approves of the exercise of power in a particular way, then that power is also considered to be a legitimate authority.

In 1978, Weber wrote of rational-legal authority:

“In Rational Legal Authority, obedience is owed to the legally established impersonal order. It extends to the persons exercising the authority of office under it only by virtue of the formal legality of their commands and only within the scope of authority of the office.”

In this context, “legal legitimacy” refers to the belief held by society that the law and administrators of the law are rightful holders of authority; that they have the right to dictate appropriate behavior and are thus entitled to be obeyed; and that laws should be obeyed, simply because doing so is considered to be the “right thing to do.”

Citizens and subjects in rational-legal systems accept authority because it is congruent with historical and established legal doctrines. Uprisings and discontent occur when citizens perceive the actions of their government to be incompatible with established legal doctrines and the citizen-government covenant intended to provide for the common good. States that use the rational-legal system are also entitled to use legitimate levels of force to ensure compliance with laws and societal norms of behavior.

Charismatic Authority

Charismatic authority is derived from an individual’s extraordinary personal qualities and from that individual’s hold over followers because of these qualities. Such individuals may exercise authority over a whole society or only a specific group within a larger society. Charismatic leaders such as Joan of Arc, Mohandas Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr., exercised their authority for good, while Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, did quite the opposite. 

U.S. presidents such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton, were charismatic and gained popularity, if not authority, from personal qualities that attracted the public and sometimes even the press. Reagan, for example, was often called “the Teflon president,” because he was so loved by much of the public that accusations of wrongdoing, such as his involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal, never stuck to him.

Charismatic qualities mixed with rational-legal authority can also be seen in the push for the U.S. to invade Iraq in 2003. Despite having limited military experience, President George W. Bush was able to project a sense of urgency to much of the American populace about the need to attack Iraq. His “down-home” demeanor and the continual media attention to the threats posed by Iraq and Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein were the primary messages most Americans received. According to many polls, a good number of Americans were willing to simply trust Bush in whatever he did on the matter, a sentiment repeated during and after the U.S. invasion.

Weber would also point towards traditional authority as the basis for the pro-invasion sentiment of the country. The nation has a long tradition of foreign military intervention, many hundreds of episodes since its founding, and the philosophy, means, and “necessity” to invade other countries.

Those who objected to the invasion relied on legal and rational authority for their power and influence. Rational-legal authority would require a mandate from the U.S. Congress to go to war but the charisma of Bush was great enough to push aside this requirement for much of the pre-invasion debate, and later enough to influence Congress to permit it.

As Weber emphasized, charismatic authority is less stable than traditional authority or rational-legal authority because once the charismatic leaders die, their authority dies with them. Recognizing this, charismatic leaders often designate a replacement leader, who they hope will also have charismatic qualities. The danger, of course, is that any new leaders will lack sufficient charisma to have their authority accepted by the followers of the original charismatic leader. For this reason, Weber recognized that charismatic authority ultimately becomes more stable when it is evolves into traditional or rational-legal authority.

Traditional Authority

Commonly found in preindustrial absolutist systems like monarchies and theocracies, traditional authority is power that is rooted in traditional, or long-standing, beliefs and practices of a society. It exists and is assigned to particular individuals because of that society’s customs and traditions. Individuals enjoy traditional authority for at least one of two reasons. The first is inheritance, as certain individuals are granted traditional authority because they are the children or other relatives of people who already exercise traditional authority. The second reason is rooted in religion: their societies believe their rulers are anointed by God or the gods, to lead their society.

With their claim to authority based solely on their ancestry or supposed divine designation, individuals granted traditional authority need not possess any special skills to receive and wield their power. Since not all individuals granted traditional authority are particularly well qualified to use it, the societies they govern may find that their leaders are not capable of doing the job.

In contrast, rational-legal authority, a hallmark of modern democracies, grants power to people elected by voters. Rules for exercising that power are usually outlined in a constitution, charter, or other written document. While traditional authority resides in the individual because of inheritance or divine designation, rational-legal authority resides in the offices that the individuals fill, not in the individuals themselves. For example, the authority of the president of the United State resides in the office of the presidency, not in the individual who happens to be president. When that individual leaves office, authority is transferred smoothly and peacefully to the next president as specified by the Constitution.

Even in times of crisis, rational-legal authority helps ensure an orderly transfer of power. When John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson was immediately sworn in as the next president. When Richard Nixon resigned his office in 1974 because of his involvement in the Watergate scandal, Vice President Gerald Ford became president. Because the Constitution provided for the transfer of power when the presidency was vacant, and because U.S. leaders and members of the public accept the authority of the Constitution, the transfer of power in 1963 and 1974 was smooth and orderly.

Authority and Power in Modern States 

Max Weber, German sociologist and political economist
Max Weber, German sociologist and political economist.

Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

As defined by Max Weber, a “state” is a political organization created out of human necessity and formed to organize and manage societies. Under this definition, Weber developed the theory of a “modern state,” a state in which power and authority are centralized and exercised by an organized independent administrating body over a clearly defined territory. 

In Max Weber's theory, a modern state has a ''monopoly on violence.” The modern state is the institution that is the only authority in the region it governs over that can use violence. Before the modern state, other than Kings and Emperors, Lords and Dukes had their own armies and local military forces. But in the modern state, police, military, and other uses of force are controlled by the state and the state alone.

Despite their many differences, government systems around the world play the same fundamental role. In some fashion, they exert control over the people they govern. The nature of that control—their power and authority—is an important feature of society.

Sociologists and political scientists view governmental power and authority from different perspectives. Political scientists focus on how power is distributed in different types of political systems. They would observe, for example, that the United States political system is divided into three distinct branches, and they would explore how public opinion affects political parties, elections, and the political process in general. Sociologists, in contrast, are more interested in the influences of governmental power on society and in how social conflicts arise from the distribution of power. Sociologists also examine how the use of power affects local, state, national, and global agendas, which in turn affect people in different ways based on their status, class, and socioeconomic standing.

What is Power?

Exploring and commenting on the nature of power, the Greek philosopher Plato (428/427 to 347 BCE) suggested, “The measure of a man is what he does with power.” In 1887, Lord Acton, considered to be one of the most learned Englishmen of his time, more famously asserted, “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The concept of power can have decidedly negative connotations, and the term itself is hard to define.

Many scholars have adopted the definition developed in 1992 by Max Weber, who said that power is the ability to exercise one’s will over others. However, the effects of power extend far beyond personal relationships, shaping larger dynamics like social groups and governments. Similarly, a government’s power is not necessarily limited to control of its citizens. A dominant nation, for instance, will often use its might to influence or support other governments or to seize control of other nations. Efforts by the U.S. government to wield military power to intervene in other countries have included joining with other nations to form the Allied forces during World War II, entering Iraq in 2002 to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime, and imposing sanctions on the government of North Korea in the hopes of constraining its development of nuclear weapons.

Not all attempts to gain power and influence lead to violence, exploitation, or abuse. Leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr., Mohandas Gandhi, and Cesar Chavez commanded powerful social movements that resulted in positive change without military force. These men organized nonviolent protests to fight corruption and discrimination and succeeded in inspiring far-reaching reforms. They relied on a variety of nonviolent civic engagement strategies such as speeches, sit-ins, marches, petitions, and boycotts.

Such forms of nonviolent reform have become far easier to implement thanks to modern technology. Today, protesters can use cell phones and social media to disseminate information and plans to masses of protesters rapidly and efficiently. During the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, for example, Twitter feeds and other social media helped protesters coordinate their movements, share ideas, and bolster morale, as well as gain global support for their causes. In 2022, social media was also important in getting accurate uncensored accounts of the civil protests in Iran against the country’s lack of freedom of expression, denial of women's rights, and the brutal killing of people during civil protests. In these examples, the users of power were the citizens rather than the governments. They found they had power because they were able to exercise their will over their leaders. Thus, government power does not necessarily equate to absolute power.

Who Holds Rational-Legal Authority? 

As a form of legitimate power that comes with a certain position, such as a president or prime minister, rational-legal authority is based on control and credibility. However, it takes more than just authority to make an effective leader. Being in a position of authority does not automatically inspire the trust of governed. Leadership is based on the personal qualities and character of an individual. It is about social skills, not just power and control.

In the bureaucracies of rational-legal authority systems, successful officials have certain leadership skills in common. One important aspect of leadership is the ability to effectively delegate authority. Through delegation, leaders empower their subordinate public servants to do the work they are best suited to. Beyond simply dividing up work, delegation is about sharing responsibility and decision-making.

Effective leaders develop followers out of free choice without forcing adherence to certain standards. Additionally, they always provide their subordinates with a platform to voice their thoughts and give feedback. This encourages people to be creative and look beyond the obvious to develop innovative solutions that work for everyone involved. This style of leadership provides a more effective approach to team-building through inclusion, rapport building, and a sense of belonging. 

The majority of modern bureaucratic officials and political leaders in rational-legal authority systems represent this type of authority. Weber provided a list of necessities addressing "how individual officials are appointed and work.” The administrative staff is under the supreme authority for legal authority in a bureaucratic administrative style.

  • They are personally free and subject to authority only with respect to their impersonal official obligation.
  • They are organized in a clearly defined hierarchy of offices.
  • Each office has a clearly defined sphere of competence in the legal sense.
  • The office is filled by a free contractual relationship or free selection.
  • Candidates are selected based on technical qualifications.
  • They are compensated by fixed salaries in money for the most part, with a right to pensions. 
  • The office is treated as the sole, or at least primary, occupation of an incumbent.
  • It constitutes a career, with promotions dependent on the judgment of superiors.
  • They work entirely separated from ownership of the means of administration and without appropriation of their position.
  • They are subject to strict and systematic discipline and control in the conduct of the office.

Politicians in rational-legal authority governments are held solely responsible for their independent actions and must recognize that public actions that conflict with their basic policy must be rejected. Finally, they should possess enough charismatic appeal to win public support for their policy and to win elections under conditions of universal voting rights.


  • Weber, Max. “Economy and society: An outline of interpretive sociology.” University of California Press; December 19, 1978; ISBN-10: ‎0520035003.
  • Lanoue, D. J. “From Camelot to the Teflon president: Economics and presidential popularity since 1960.” Praeger; October 20, 1988; ISBN-10: ‎0313263930.
  • Perrow, Charles. “Complex organizations: a critical essay.” Random House; 1986; ISBN 9780075547990.
  • Gerth, H. H. “Bureaucracy.” From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. ISBN 9780203759240.
  • Collins, R. “Weberian sociological theory.” Cambridge University Press; February 28, 1986; ISBN-10: ‎0521314267.
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Longley, Robert. "What Is Rational-Legal Authority?" ThoughtCo, Jan. 9, 2023, thoughtco.com/what-is-rational-legal-authority-7069007. Longley, Robert. (2023, January 9). What Is Rational-Legal Authority? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-rational-legal-authority-7069007 Longley, Robert. "What Is Rational-Legal Authority?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-rational-legal-authority-7069007 (accessed February 9, 2023).