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According to Max Weber, rational legal authority represents a form of legitimate domination, with domination being the ”probability that certain commands (or all commands) from a given source will be obeyed by a given group of persons”. While this probability implies a certain interest on the part of those obeying in the effects of their compliance, such interest can be diverse, and individuals may act upon calculated self-interest, habituation, affection, or idealistic orientations. For domination to endure, however, it depends on the belief in the legitimacy of the command and its source. Accordingly, Weber distinguishes three types of legitimate domination. Charismatic authority rests upon a belief in the extraordinary, sacred, and/or exemplary qualities of the person commanding, while traditional authority calls for submission to those who are privileged to rule by historical convention. In contrast, rational legal authority differs in its unique combination of impersonality, formality, and everyday profaneness. It rests upon ”a belief in the ‘legality’ of patterns of normative rules and the right of those elevated to authority under such rules to issue commands (legal authority).”
The innate ambivalence of the principles that constitute rational legal authority provoke ambiguous and, occasionally, conflicting consequences. In Weber’s conceptualization, rational legal administration is most effective and efficient the more it operates along the lines of formal rationality, thus excluding any substantive values and eradicating personal emotions, sentiments, or ideals.
Rational legal authority has changed its face, but it has not withered away. Rationalization of production, consumption, and life pursuit is still prevalent, as cathedrals of consumption, supranational institutions, and lateral careers demonstrate. In fact, where rational legal structures have retreated — be it in international disputes — brute power or even violence seems to prevail. Perhaps McDonaldization rather than bureaucratization is the dominant form these days; yet still, our saturated selves rely upon ”civilization” within somewhat more ”fancy” iron cages.
- Weber, M. (1968) Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, ed. G. Roth & C. Wittich. Bedminster Press, New York.
- Weber, M. (1988)  Gesammelte Aufsatze zur Religionssoziologie. J. B. C. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), Tubingen.