Authority is the legitimate power which one person or group possesses and practices over another.[1] A civil state usually makes this formal by way of a judicial branch and an executive branch of government.[2] In the exercise of governance, the terms authority and power sometimes are inaccurately used as synonyms. The term authority identifies political legitimacy, which grants and justifies the right to exercise power of government; and the term power identifies the ability to accomplish an authorized goal, by way either of compliance or of obedience; hence, authority is the power to make decisions and the right to make such legal decisions and order their execution.[3]


Ancient understandings of authority trace back to Rome and draw later from Catholic (Thomistic) thought and other traditional understandings. In more modern terms, forms of authority include transitional authority exhibited in for example Cambodia,[4] public authority in the form of popular power, and, in more administrative terms, bureaucratic or managerial techniques. In terms of bureaucratic governance, one limitation of the governmental agents of the executive branch, as outlined by George A. Krause, is that they are not as close to the popular will as elected representatives are.[5] The claims of authority can extend to national or individual sovereignty, which is broadly or provisionally understood as a claim to political authority that is legitimated.[6]

Historical applications of authority in political terms include the formation of the city-state of Geneva, and experimental treatises involving the topic of authority in relation to education include Emile by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. As David Laitin defines, authority is a key concept to be defined in determining the range and role of political theory, science and inquiry.[7] The relevance of a grounded understanding of authority includes the basic foundation and formation of political, civil and/or ecclesiastical institutions or representatives. In recent years, however, authority in political contexts has been challenged or questioned.