Authority is the right to exercise power, which can be formalized by a state and exercised by way of judges, appointed executives of government, or the ecclesiastical or priestly appointed representatives of a God or other deities. Authority, in the sense of "authorization", can also mean the right to complete an action or execute an order.

In government, authority is often used interchangeably with power. However, their meanings differ: while power is the ability to order or accomplish a goal or to influence others, authority refers to a claim of legitimacy, the justification and right to exercise that power. For example, while a mob may have the power to punish a criminal by beating or lynching, the rule of law indicates that only a court of law has the authority to determine and refer a criminal for punishment. In this sense, authority is a matter of not only the ability or power to make decisions, but the right to make these decisions and execute them with commensurate power. Appropriate authority is the basis of good government in the republican conception of government, which finds much of its theoretical origins in ancient Rome.


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,[1] 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.[2] 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.[3]

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.[4] 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.