Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

Legitimacy and Military Intervention in a Democracy: Civilian Government as a Public Good

Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

Legitimacy and Military Intervention in a Democracy: Civilian Government as a Public Good

Article excerpt

Most students of military intervention agree that variations in governmental legitimacy are an exceptionally important explanation for the incidence of coup attempts. . . . Despite the general agreement on the importance of the legitimacy factor, the hypothesis' underlying reasoning has not been extensively developed. What are the connections between legitimacy and intervention? (Nordlinger 1977, p. 93)



Many factors contribute to the maintenance of civilian control over the military in democracy. Professionalism might lead to acceptance of civilian control over policy, with the military effectively exercising self-constraint (Huntington, 1957). Oversight of the military and differences of opinion within the armed forces can prevent the organization necessary for intervention in politics. Dismissing officers who venture too far into politics or attempt to organize a conspiracy sorts officers who fail to accept civilian supremacy out of the military. The presence within the military of either agents of the regime or officers who accept civilian control complicates the task of planning a coup d'etat.(2)

But many scholars argue that political intervention in a mature democracy is impossible even for a united and organized military. S. E. Finer concludes that in politically developed nations, "The violent overthrow of a government may indeed be attempted, since the military may be rash enough to try anything; but the attempts are rare, brief and unsuccessful" (1988, p. 80). The argument for the impossibility of intervention by a united military relies on the legitimacy of democracy and the illegitimacy of military rule (Finer, 1988; Linz, 1978; Nordlinger, 1977). But relatively little has been written on the details of this argument.

Ethical preferences can certainly influence individuals' actions both in the private and public sphere (Frank, 1996). And considering legitimacy in the consolidation and maintenance of democracy provides a useful supplement to the tendency by policy advisors to focus only on economic efficiency. As Guillermo O'Donnell (1995, p. 26) notes critically, "The upshot typically has been the neglect of topics that are properly political, such as questions regarding the political effects of 'correct' economic policies on the legitimacy of democracy and the prestige of democratic institutions and politicians." Yet because legitimate government is a public good, we cannot assume that citizens' legitimacy preferences deter military intervention.(3)

I consider a mechanism through which the legitimacy argument against military intervention might operate. Citizens who prefer a legitimate (democratic) government need a means of preventing a coup d'etat. All governments rely on citizen compliance with the law; noncompliance could render a nation ungovernable, even for the military. Citizens could deter military intervention by credibly refusing to support an illegitimate regime. But this mechanism faces at least three objections. The first is the collective action argument mentioned already. Second, the goals of military intervention determine the importance of citizen compliance in attaining these objectives. Noncompliance may not be sufficient to deter all motives for military intervention. Third, the argument requires that force be a poor substitute for legitimacy in generating citizen compliance with the law, which may not be empirically valid.

The paper is organized as follows. Section II examines how popular noncooperation can deter military intervention. Section III discusses difficulties with the noncooperation argument. Section IV explores whether interest groups will support democracy. I find no general reason why interest groups consistently side with a democratic government over a military regime. My conclusion is consistent with Kimenyi's (1989) finding that the number of interest groups is negatively correlated with the incidence of democracy. …

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