Institutional sources of legitimate authority: An experimental investigation

Eric S. Dickson, Sanford C. Gordon, Gregory A. Huber

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    Unelected officials with coercive powers (e.g., police, prosecutors, bureaucrats) vary markedly in the extent to which citizens view their actions as legitimate. We explore the institutional determinants of legitimate authority in the context of a public goods laboratory experiment. In the experiment, an "authority" can target one "citizen" for punishment following citizen contribution choices. Untargeted citizens can then choose to help or hinder the authority. This latter choice may be interpreted as a behavioral measure of the authority's legitimacy. We find that legitimacy is affected by how authorities are compensated, the transparency with which their decisions are observed, and an interaction between these. When transparency is high, citizens are more willing to assist authorities who receive fixed salaries than those who personally benefit from collected penalties, even when citizens' material incentives are controlled for. Lower transparency reduces support, but only for salaried enforcers.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Pages (from-to)109-127
    Number of pages19
    JournalAmerican Journal of Political Science
    Issue number1
    StatePublished - Jan 1 2015

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Sociology and Political Science
    • Political Science and International Relations


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