A key advantage of law as an instrument of social change is the general feeling in society that legal commands or prohibitions ought to be observed even by those critical of the law in question. To a great extent, this feeling of obligation depends on respect for legitimate authority (Ewick and Silbey, 2003).

Max Weber (1947) authored the classic treatment of legitimate authority. Obedience to commands by a society’s leaders can rest on a variety of considerations, from simple habituation to a purely rational calculation of advantage. But there is always at least some voluntary submission based on an interest in obedience. In extreme cases, this interest in obedience can be seen in the tendency for people to commit illegal acts when so ordered by authority (and for others to excuse such acts as not subject to ordinary morality). Examples of this include the defense used at the Nuremberg trials, at the Watergate hearings, and at the court-martial of Lt. William Calley for the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War (Kelman and Hamilton, 1989). Obedience to authority can be based on custom, emotional ties, or purely material interests. Because these factors may still be relatively unstable, another important element helps to produce more stable obedience.

This factor is the belief in legitimate authority, also known as legitimacy.

Weber outlined three types of legitimate authority—traditional, charismatic, and rational- legal. Traditional authority bases its claims to legitimacy on an established belief in the sanctity of traditions and the legitimacy of the status of those exercising authority. The obligation of obedience is not a matter of acceptance of the legality of an impersonal order but, rather, a matter of personal loyalty. The “rule of elders” in many of the societies studied by anthropologists illustrates traditional authority.

Charismatic authority bases its claim to legitimacy on devotion to the specific and unusual sanctity, heroism, or exemplary character of an individual and the normative patterns that are revealed or ordained. Charismatic leaders are obeyed by virtue of personal trust in their exemplary qualities. Illustrations of individuals with charismatic authority include Moses, Christ, Mohammed, and Gandhi.

Rational-legal authority bases its claims to legitimacy on a belief in the legality of normative rules and in the right of those elevated to authority to issue commands under such rules. In such authority, obedience is owed to a legally established impersonal order. The individuals who exercise authority of office are shown obedience only by virtue of the formal legality of their commands, and only within the scope of authority of their office. For example, most Americans these days have a low opinion of Congress. Despite this view, most Americans doubtless still believe that the rules outlined in Congressional legislation should not be disobeyed, because these rules come from a branch of government with legitimate authority.

Theory and research show that legitimate authority can wield considerable influence over both actions and attitudes (Tyler et al., 1988). It can be the result of both the coercive power involved in law, but also an individual’s internalized values regarding legitimate authority. There is a tendency on the part of individuals to assume that the law has the right to regulate behavior and insist on conformity to the law. To an extent, obedience to the law stems from respect for the underlying process. As Lawrence Friedman (1975:114) has perceptively noted,

People obey the law, 'because it is the law.' This means they have general respect for procedures and for the system. They feel, for some reason, that they should obey, if Congress passes a law, if a judge makes a decision, if the city council passes an ordinance. If they were forced to explain why, they might refer to some concept of democracy, or the rule of law, or some other popular theory sustaining the political system.

In short, law helps to define the “correct” way of behaving in our daily lives. This effect is ingrained and is present even without the sanctions that are part of the enforcement machinery. In fact, most people in most situations tend to comply with the law without consciously assessing the possibility of legal sanctions or punishment. To the extent they obey the law simply because it is the law, and not because they fear punishment, obedience will be more stable. The legal definitions of proper conduct become subsumed to a large extent in individual attitudes toward everyday life and become part of internalized values.

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