Max Weber

US Legal System in Weber’s Formal Legal Rationality Term Paper

December 15, 2021 by Essay Writer


The legal system is a complex phenomenon that can be viewed from different perspectives. Even though it is legislative, the system can be perceived from the perspective of sociological theories and social developments. Such an approach to studying legal systems can help obtain a better understanding of factors that motivated the creation of particular frameworks as well as identifying the existing gaps that should be filled to improve the system and benefit all social groups.

One of the interesting theories beneficial for reviewing the peculiarities of legal systems is that developed by Max Weber. It focuses on formal legal rationality. That is why its postulates may be important for becoming more aware of the specific features of the contemporary legal system operating in the United States of America.

Therefore, the central objective of the paper at hand is to investigate the peculiarities of the US legal system. To cope with this task, Weber’s theory of formal legal rationality will be reviewed. However, the major focus will be made on the system instead of Weber’s theoretical points. In this way, the aim is to determine and discuss main social factors, challenges, processes, and forces that are directly associated with the American legal system and hypothesize which elements among those mentioned above promote the establishment of the ideal legal system.

Speaking of the latter, the perfection of the system is determined according to Weber. That said, in this paper, an attempt to speculate on barriers to and drivers for high formality and high rationality of the US legal system will be made. Finally, the piece of writing will end in hypotheses on the future of the legal system operating in the United States based on its strengths and challenges identified during the research.

Review of Weber’s Theory of Formal Legal Rationality

Understanding the modern legal system of the United States from the necessary perspective is inseparable from studying the views of Weber’s theory of formal legal rationality. Once considered, the major ideas will be applied to analyze the legal system of the United States to evaluate it in terms of Weber’s concepts. That is why the motivation is to speculate on the characteristics of the formality and rationality in the American legal system.

To begin with, it is necessary to point out that, in Weber’s opinion, this is rationality that is likely to determine the arterial ways of development of humanity. Therefore, it is important to reflect on what Weber implied in the concept of rationalization. First of all, from Weber’s viewpoint, the term “rationalization” stands for systematization in which a boundless chaotic group of phenomena with the fundamentally endless aggregate of connections tends to be put in good order based on several certain criteria.

However, the key issue to take into account is that Weber attempted to include the most various notions inside the concept of rationalization. For instance, he believed that bureaucratization, industrialization, development of the rational, productive capitalism, specialization, qualification, methodization, discipline, speculation, and dehumanization are all elements of rationalization (Weber).

However, the situation proved to become more regulated when Weber started speculating on more concrete things, such as the legal rationalization of free labor of the capitalist enterprising in the West. He managed to single out the most general conditions for this, and they are as follows:

  1. the rational account of the capital;
  2. the appropriation of the free property right for the production means by autonomous private enterprises;
  3. the free market, which stands for the freedom of the market from any irrational restraints of exchange (for instance, from any estates limitations when a certain estate attributes a particular mode of life in which neither free goods market nor free labor force exists);
  4. the rational, strictly assessed and thus mechanized technology both in the sphere of production and in the sphere of exchange;
  5. the rational, strictly established right that defines the norms of labor and administration, guarantees the functioning of the capitalist order, and prevents any possible confusion in the economy account;
  6. the free labor that means that there are people who have the right to freely sell their labor force in the market as well as who are enforced to do so;
  7. the commercial organization of economy, which stands for a broad application of equities to establish the right to participate in the affairs of the enterprise, as well as the right to the property (Weber).

Weber believed that the key idea of western capitalism stood for the assumption that, despite the obvious importance of the economic factors that were connected with the legal rationalization, economic rationalism depended on the ability and predisposition of people to certain kinds of practically rational life behavior. From Weber’s viewpoint, the notion of “struggle” was fundamentally crucial. It was opposed to the concept of “consent.”

Weber derived the idea from the following of his reflections: the majority of all establishments, both institutions, and unions, had emerged not based on consent but as a result of forced actions. It implies that there were people and groups of people that we’re able to produce a factual impact on the common actions taken by the members of any institution or union and point them towards the direction which they were willing to level it to, based on the expectation of consent. By Weber, each individual is inclined to struggle to impose their will on others either by direct physical action or using so-called competitiveness (Weber).

Nevertheless, Weber did not happen to ignore the role of economic factors in the legal rationalism. However, in Weber’s opinion, the sphere of economic actions served as a mere logical precondition to explain the so-called theory of stratification. Thus, a notion of “class” has been introduced in this context. Based on Weber’s view, it is possible to speak about classes in the following situations:

  1. when a certain number of people are united by a specific causative component that is related to their life interests;
  2. this component is represented by a mere economic interest in purchasing goods or receiving incomes,
  3. this component is determined by the situation which has existed in the market of goods and labor (Weber).

Weber tended to divide classes as a certain group of people into three main types. They are

  1. the class of property owners;
  2. the money-grabbing class that exploits services in the market;
  3. the social class that consists of several class statuses inside which there might be witnessed some changes taking place both on the personal basis and in the framework of several generations.

Weber paid his special attention to the so-called middle class. Based on Weber, the middle class includes those people who have all the types of property and are competitive in the labor market due to their special preparation. The examples of other classes are as follows:

  1. the labor class as the whole that is involved in the mechanizing process;
  2. low-middle classes;
  3. engineers, financial and other employees, as well as civil officials – this class stands for the so-called intellectuals without independent property;
  4. a class of people who have a privileged position due to their private property and education (Weber, “Legal Authority”).

While investigating the class structure of the society from the legal viewpoint, Weber intended to discover the common grounds and transitions between particular groups within one class. The same is true in case of identifying the connection between different classes. Thus, the scheme of the class structure which was suggested by Weber appeared to be so intricate that, based on it, it happened to be next to impossible to make a full list of classes.

Apart from that, as distinct from classes, Weber introduced one more concept. It is referred to as status groups. He claimed that, in contrast to classes that are determined by the mere economic situation, status groups are legally identified by specific social evaluation of honor. According to Weber, social order appears to be a mere tool that allows the social honor to be legally distributed in the society between typical groups, which participate in such a distribution (Weber).

To sum it up, it is necessary to state that the notion of rationality can be viewed as the transition from the traditional state to the modern state. It emerged in the innovative conditions of personal freedom. The rational paradigm became inconsistent with the religious roots and, thus, religion was rejected by society. Weber singled out three types of legitimate power: traditional, charismatic, and rational-legal. Weber believed that the latter had become dominant in the modern world.

What is even more important, he stated that rationalization had happened to transform Western politics. As for Weber’s evaluation of rationalization, it is not univocal. On one hand, Weber favored the liberation of the irrational directive. On the other hand, he criticized the mechanicalness of the new society. With these views taken into account, it is possible to go on to analyze the legal system of the United States in terms of its rationality and formality (Weber).

Analysis of the Legal System Operating in the United States

The legal system is a complex phenomenon. Therefore, to analyze it properly, it is essential to pay special attention to different aspects of the system and review it from various perspectives. Because the idea is to speculate on the specificities of the American legal system given Weber’s theory of formal legal rationality, the idea is to focus on social determinants of the legal system. In this way, the specific features of the legal system will be identified and described based on the existing social factors, challenges, forces, and processes that are directly associated with the system’s operation and have a robust impact on its future development.

Social Factors and Challenges

Social factors are those drivers that promote positive change in society, i.e. make up the foundation of the evolutionary processes. In the case of the US legal system, the central social factor is social inequality that is evident in all areas of social interactions, including the system of social and court protection. This social factor is the main challenge of the US legal system, even though it is strong enough.

The inability to guarantee and protect the overall equality in society can be viewed from several perspectives. The first one is associated with the inability to protect one’s right to the freedom of marriage. This one is a natural and personal right, as each individual is born with the desire to create a family. However, there are some significant barriers to protecting this right in all of the states (Birch 3). More than that, it is associated with the nationwide cultural and social conflict due to the lack of social support that is complicated to provide legally (Colson and Pearcey 104; Knight 1).

Another critical challenge is the inability to decrease the gap between the poor and the rich, as somehow the legal system protects the right of the rich more compared to those of the poor. It can be traced in the volume of the property tax burden as well as the inconsistency of the tax system when it comes to assessing one’s property before calculating the volume of taxes to pay (Finder and Levine 1).

There is the following trend: regardless of the free access to the legal system, the poor rarely feel governmental support when it is essential to protect their financial rights and freedoms (for instance, oppose an unnecessary property audit) (Cobb 17). More than that, the contemporary legal system supports the reduction of legal aid to the poor that is connected to the increased risks of resentment and having no loyalty to the system and governments (Pear 1A).


The American legal system is characterized by the existence of several significant forces. The first one is social change. In general, this concept stands for any alterations in the established and generally acceptable behavioral patterns common for a particular society or social group (Friedman and Ladinsky 50). Therefore, when they change, it is essential to amend legal frameworks – those regulating the operation of legal institutions – so that they comply with the new requirements.

In the case of the United States, the ability to adapt to social change is one of the major forces of the legal system. To prove this statement, it is imperative to focus on several developments in society. For instance, recall changes in the law of industrial accidents that evolved from a primitive tort system to a comprehensive compensation system, as the industries became more complex and industry-related activities became deeply integrated into the everyday life of society members (Friedman and Ladinsky 50).

In this way, institutions are no longer ignorant when it comes to addressing human needs. Instead, special attention is paid to satisfying them as well as protecting fundamental human rights. However, this force is connected to an impressing weakness – no change in the legal system is made without social demand (Friedman and Ladinsky 82). It means that if people do not demonstrate their desire to foster legal change, they experience no positive developments in the system. It is especially true in the case of involvement of interest groups in supporting ordinary people because there are interest groups (influential classes of society) that help to promote change (Coleman 264).

Another force of the US legal system is the involvement of the government in fostering change. In this instance, it is possible to recall the tightening of antitrust legislation. However, just like in the case of promoting social change, government engagement is inseparable from the waves of overall resentment in society and demands to alter the existing system (Coleman 273). A similar outcome is the adoption of equal employment and education opportunities regardless of one’s skin color (Burns 48).

Even though there is significant progress in this area of social relations regulation, most of the accomplishments were achieved as a result of massive resentment in the society, just like in the case of equal employment opportunities at Kaiser plants – provisions eliminating discrimination in the workplace whether it is connected to hiring or training of already employed staff (Weber v. Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Corporation).


Speaking in terms of Weber’s theory, the most significant processes in the US legal system are the evolutionary processes – those leading to changes of the system and its improvement that make it more perfect and rational. The main evolutionary processes are those related to the changing perception of one’s gender and sexual orientation in social and legal justice. The most impressive success is associated with the integration of sexual minorities, as well as women, in social life and recognizing the criticality of the legal protection of their rights by the official institutions and legal system.

For instance, when speaking of gender, there have been significant improvements in the access of women to high-status occupations across industries as well as the closing the gap in hourly compensation for work and granting women the right to integration in social affairs, including making the most critical social decisions, such as voting (Sutton 199, 274). All in all, the evolutionary process is the overall improvement of women’s economic and social position that is acknowledged and protected by the contemporary legal system (Baron 474).

In this way, the contemporary system is becoming gender-blind that is a beneficial process (Sutton 196). The same is true in the case of eliminating racial discrimination in all spheres of social interactions, as the historically traditional white supremacy is becoming less significant, and it is true not only in case of interactions with African-American people but representatives of all races, including Asians, Indians, Hispanics, etc. (Burns 43, 49).

One more evolutionary process is the improvement of sexual minorities’ status in society. This one is associated with the decreased moral outrage when it comes to treating sexual minorities as well as the appropriate integration of minorities in different areas of social interactions, including governing social relations and military service (Eskridge and Hunter 390). Another success is the society-wide debate for protecting the right to the freedom of marriage, as it is one’s private right to choose a life partner and create a family (Eskridge 808).

Specificities of the American Legal System

Based on the social factors, challenges, forces, and processes mentioned and described above, it is evident that the contemporary legal system operating in the United States can be characterized by several specific features. To begin with, the system is complicated, as any positive change in the social and legal frameworks is inseparable from resentment and the necessity to involve ordinary people and interest groups in promoting novelties. That said, each strength is directly connected with the challenge.

Another specific feature of the contemporary system is the robust impact of powerful classes on the decision-making process and fostering social and legal changes. This one is closely related to the interconnectedness of different elements of the legal system. This peculiarity is characterized by the influential role of interest groups and exchanges between different elements of the system (Cole 143). Finally, the influence of the courts in the whole system is vital so that courts have the right to interpret the law from the necessary perspective (Cole 147).

It is directly associated with numerous controversies in legal cases that are commonly viewed as opportunities for protecting the rights and addressing the needs of interest groups instead of establishing universal equality (Casper 210).

When viewed in light of Weber’s theory, the contemporary legal system is characterized by the significant impact of particular classes – those with property and education – on the overall development of the society in general and the legal system in particular. Moreover, due to the involvement of professional staff (courts) in guaranteeing that the law is followed, the system is mature. Also, all of the engaged staff members are formally rational, as it is a common characteristic of the mature system. At the same time, it is formally rational because social status – the combination of money and education, and other generally acceptable values – determines the right to become involved in managing the legal system or expecting particular outcomes of the legal process or social justice issues.

Conclusion: The Future of Formal Legal System in the United States

All of the specificities identified and discussed above are the foundation for speculating on the future of the formal legal system in the United States from the perspective of Weber’s theory of formal legal rationality. Even though it can be perceived as mature and formally rational, the system is experiencing more evolutionary processes. It means that is will be altered over time. For me, this change will be demonstrated in the set of values, identifying potential outcomes of legal proceedings and the social justice system.

Even though they will remain quantitative – easily calculated – I believe that there will be a significant shift from money to personal characteristics just like there was a shift from male dominance to gender-blind society. Of course, it is impossible to state that the role of money will be diminished when it comes to administering socially vital decisions, but the belief is that financial background will be supplemented with education, innovativeness, and personal experience – some qualitative aspects measured quantitatively.

This assumption is made based on the recent changes in society and the increased significance of creative and innovative thinking in managing affairs. That said, the system will remain formally rational, but it will grow more complicated, and it will become more complex to become the representative of the staff administering legal provisions and protecting the law due to the necessity to possess an impressive potential rather than just be financially successful.

Works Cited

Baron, Ava. “Feminist Legal Strategies: The Powers of Difference.” Analyzing Gender: A Handbook of Social Science Research, edited by Beth Hess and Myra Marx Ferre, SAGE, 1987, pp. 475-497.

Birch, Elizabeth. Birch Testimony at Anti-Gay Marriage Hearing. US Government Publishing Office, 1996.

Burns, Haywood. “Racism and American Law.” Law against the People: Essays to Demystify Law, Order and the Courts, edited by Robert Lefcourt, Random House, 1971, pp. 38-54.

Casper, Jonathan D. “Did You Have a Lawyer When You Went to Court? No, I had a Public Defender.” Yale Review of Law and Social Action, vol. 1, no. 4, 1971, pp. 4-9.

Cobb, Jean. “Power Struggles.” Common Cause Magazine, vol. 13, no. 4, 1987, pp. 17-21.

Cole, George F. “The Decision to Prosecute.” Law and Society Review, vol. 4, no. 3, 1970, pp. 313-343.

Coleman, James William. “Law and Power: The Sherman Antitrust Act and Its Enforcement in the Petroleum Industry.” Social Problems, vol. 32, no. 3, 1985, pp. 264-274.

Colson, Charles, and Nancy Pearcey. “Why not Gay Marriage?” Christianity Today, vol. 40, no. 12, pp. 104.

Eskridge, William N. Sexuality, Gender and the Law: 2003 Supplement. Foundation Press, 2003.

Eskridge, William N., and Han D. Hunter. 2000 Supplement to Sexuality, Gender and the Law. Foundation Press, 2000.

Finder, Alan, and Richard Levine. “Some of the Rich Pay Less Tax than the Other Homeowners.” The New York Times, 29 May 1990, p. 1.

Friedman, Lawrence M., and Jack Ladinsky, “Social Change and the Law of Industrial Accidents.” Columbia Law Review, vol. 67, no. 1, 1967, pp. 50-82.

Knight, Robert H. Why We Need the Defense of Marriage Act. Family Research Council, 1996.

Pear, Robert, “As Welfare Overhaul Looms, Legal Aid for Poor Dwindles.” The New York Times, 5 Sep. 1995, p. 1A.

Sutton, John R. Law/Society: Origins, Interactions, and Change. Pine Forge Press, 2001.

Weber, Max. Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology. University of California Press, 1922. Google Books. Web.

Weber v. Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Corporation, 443 U.S. 193 (1979). Supreme Court of the United States.

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