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Rational-legal authority (also known as rational authority, legal authority, rational domination, legal domination, or bureaucratic authority) is a form of leadership in which the authority of an organization or a ruling regime is largely tied to legal rationality, legal legitimacy and bureaucracy. The majority of the modern states of the twentieth century are rational-legal authorities, according to those who use this form of classification.

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Rational-legal authority in sociology

In sociology, the concept of rational-legal domination comes from Max Weber's tripartite classification of authority (one of several classifications of government used by sociologists); the other two forms being traditional authority and charismatic authority. All of those three domination types represent an example of his ideal type concept. Weber noted that in history those ideal types of domination are always found in combinations.

In traditional authority, the legitimacy of the authority comes from tradition. Charismatic authority is legitimized by the personality and leadership qualities of the ruling individual. Finally, rational-legal authority derives its powers from the system of bureaucracy and legality.

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Legal rationality and legitimacy

In the modern state, people (and legal practitioners) attribute legitimacy to a legal order insofar as its laws have been enacted (this concept of legal authority and its legitimacy should be understood in the light of arguments of natural law and legal positivism).

Weber defined legal order as a system where the rules are implemented and obeyed in the belief that they are legitimate because they conform with the statuses of a government that monopolizes their enactment and the legitimate use of physical force.

Emergence of the modern state

Weber wrote that the distinctively rational characteristics of the state emerged from the patrimonial and feudal struggle for power that can be found only in Occidental civilization. The prerequisites for the modern Western state are:

  • monopolization by central authority of the means of domination and administration based on:
    • centrally directed and permanent system of taxation
    • centrally directed and permanent system of military force
  • monopolization of legal enactments and the legitimate use of force by central authority
  • organisation of a rationally oriented officialdom, whose exercise of administrative function is dependent upon the central authority

Weber argued that some of those attributes have existed in various time or places, but combined they have emerged only in Occidental civilization. The conditions that favoured this were

  • emergence of legal rationality (various status groups in the Occident promoted that emergence)
  • emergence of modern officialdom (bureaucracy), which required
    • development of the money economy, where officials are compensated in money instead of kind (usually land grants)
    • quantitative and qualitative expansion of administrative tasks
    • expansion on officialdom due to its centralisation and increased efficiency over past alternative methods of administration.

Weber's belief that rational-legal authority did not exist in Imperial China has been heavily criticized, and does not have many supporters in the early 21st century.

Modern state

According to Max Weber, a modern state exists where a political community possesses the following characteristics:

  • an administrative and legal order that is subject to change by legislation
  • an administrative apparatus that conducts official business in accordance with legislative regulation
  • binding authority over all persons (citizens) and most actions taking place in the area of its jurisdiction
  • the legitimation to use force within this area if coercion is permitted or prescribed by the legally constituted government

An important attribute of Weber's definition of a modern state was the fact that it is a bureaucracy.

The vast majority of the modern states from the 20th century onward fall under the rational-legal authority category.

Rational-legal leaders

Ideally, the majority of modern politicians represent this type of authority.

Officials must exercise their judgment and their skills, but their duty is to place these at the service of a higher authority; ultimately they are responsible only for the impartial execution of assigned tasks and must sacrifice their personal judgment if it runs counter to their official duties.

Weber distinguished between bureaucratic officials and political leaders.

Other qualities of officials of a legal-rational authority:

  • They are personally free and appointed to their positions on the basis of conduct.
  • They exercise the authority delegated to them in accordance with impersonal rules, and their loyalty is enlisted on behalf of the faithful execution of their official duties.
  • Their appointment and job placement are dependent upon their technical qualifications.
  • Their administrative work is a full-time occupation.
  • Their work is rewarded by a regular salary and prospects of advancement in a lifetime career.

Politicians must demonstrate their capacity for independent action, for which they alone are responsible. Partisanship is important to them, they must reject the responsibility for public actions that conflict with their basic policy. They should have charismatic appeal to win elections under conditions of universal suffrage.

See also


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