Jason B. Ladd

Author | Apologist | Entrepreneur

Gladwell and The Principle of Legitimacy

principle of legitimacy malcolm gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants seeks to explain several different phenomena by using a simple concept: the inverted U-curve.  Gladwell uses this tool to help us understand when conditions will either be advantageous or disadvantageous.  Understanding when a situation is operating with an inverted-U curve can help us predict future effects and avoid being surprised by unexpected results.

Gladwell and the Inverted-U Curve

Gladwell uses the inverted-U curve to explain a variety of conditions, including:

  • why school classes can be too big, or too small
  • why some statutory penalties can be too harsh
  • why you can have too much money

Along the way, Gladwell describes another principle which is required if those exercising authority expect their commands to be obeyed: the principle of legitimacy.

The Principle of Legitimacy

Gladwell describes the required ingredients for the principle of legitimacy:

  1. The people expected to obey must have a voice.
  2. The law must be predictable.
  3. The authority has to be fair.1

Commanding Officers expect their troops to obey, and fathers expect their children to behave.  Both roles require the calculated application of the principle of legitimacy.

As both father and Marine, I have seen most issues occur due to a lack of proper application of step #2.  When the consequences of violating your will are unclear, you can expect your will to be violated.

Perfect Application, Imperfect Response

The greatest application of the principle of legitimacy is given to us by the greatest leader of all time: Jesus of Nazareth.  Jesus never failed at step #2.  Jesus was consistent in warning people about the consequences for violating his commandments.

If Jesus was an expert at applying the principle of legitimacy, then why do people disobey his commands?  One reason is that some people do not view Jesus as fair.

“How could a loving God send people to hell?”

The thought of a repentant murderer going to Heaven, or a seemingly good person ending up in hell is difficult to accept when the question is phrased in such a way.

But the question itself is flawed.

The Wrong Question

God does not send anybody to hell.  Hell is the place for people who refuse to be with God; he doesn’t send them–they send themselves.  Jesus tell us in John 14:15:

“If you love me, you will obey what I command.”

Anyone who truly seeks the mind of God will grow to love him, and everyone who truly loves him will find heaven.

Legitimate authorities must give their people predictable consequences for refusing to follow their commands, but perhaps the principle of legitimacy has another requirement: that the authority acts out of love for the people and not lust for power.


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1 Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2013), 207.

Photo credit: Tyler J. Bolken / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

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Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I believe will add value to my readers or will assist them in establishing a coherent worldview. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

About Jason B. Ladd

Jason is an author, speaker, Marine, and father of seven. He has flown the F/A-18 Hornet as a Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron 1 (MAWTS-1) Instructor Pilot and the F-16 as an Instructor Pilot. His award-winning book One of the Few: A Marine Fighter Pilot’s Reconnaissance of the Christian Worldview has been optioned for film adaptation. He is represented by Julie Gwinn of The Seymour Agency.

One Reply

  1. Very interesting post, enough so that I have ordered the book to read as well! What a blessing when I was ordering the book to find that Amazon now has a program that will donate to your favorite charity each time you make a purchase. It’s called Amazon Smile. The blessing was in immediately finding out I can have donations go to the #1 charity I donate to yearly (after my church), Wounded Warriors Project. I’m not able to donate large amounts but every little bit helps. It makes me happy to know there are other ways I can donate to this worthwhile group besides my direct donations.