What is political legitimacy? 11
From a general point of view, right serves to determine what is due to
each individual, that is to say, it serves to establish the just portion that
is to be attributed to him.
What is due to each person is precisely what
is called ‘his right’. Now, the right of an individual has meaning only in
relation to an other. The very idea of right presupposes the existence of
a community. In a world in which but a single person lived, right would
have no room to exist. Indeed, as both the result of a conﬂict and its
antidote, right is connected, on the one hand, to a state of competition
between at least two persons for
the possession of a given good and, on
the other hand, to the creation of a relationship of coexistence.
From this perspective, the public character of right is clear and mani-
fest. Its object being to coordinate the actions among individuals via laws
that delimit what is inalienable and, by way of consequence, what has to
be respected, right helps to set into place a network of sociability.
network allows exchanges to unfold within a ﬁxed framework and under
the form of reciprocity, that is to say, in a tangling together of rights and
duties. For, to each right corresponds a duty.
Obviously, this public space cannot operate without individual consent.
It is, even, the product of the latter. Consent plays, in effect, a decisive
role in the mechanisms of reciprocity. A right whose validity is recognised
by no one does not possess, properly speaking, the character of a right. Its
nature is to be a valid title of property that one enjoys in full security.
has to be recognised in an incontestable manner. Nonetheless, everything
that is granted to some being necessarily abandoned by the rest, the rights
of individuals can be established only with the aid of a mutual limitation
grounded upon a spirit of compromise and concession.
This is the reason why obligation is the sanction that attests to the
effective actuality of rights: the feeling that we have a right vis-`a-vis an in-
dividual signiﬁes that we recognise his right – which presupposes, in turn,
that this individual also credits us with having our right.
In other words,
right is an understanding with the other about what constitutes each
one’s portion and about what is mutually due. In organising an ongoing
relationship among individuals, right creates reciprocal expectations that
the consent of each allows to be satisﬁed.
See Michel Villey, Philosophie du droit, 3rd edn, 2 vols. (Paris: Dalloz, 1982), vol. I,
D´eﬁnitions et ﬁns du droit, p. 146.
For the public, because social, character of right, see
Emile Durkheim’s The Division of
Labor in Society, trans. W. D. Halls (New York: The Free Press, 1984), p. 81.
This is what Montesquieu had in mind when he deﬁned freedom as ‘that tranquillity of
spirit which comes from the opinion each one has of his own security’ (The Spirit of the
Laws, trans. and ed. Anne M. Cohler, Basia Carolyn Miller, and Harold Samuel Stone
(Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 157).
See John P. Plamenatz, Consent, Freedom and Political Obligation, 2nd edn (Oxford
University Press, 1968), p. 85.