The Rule of Law, the quaint idea that societies should be governed by objective laws instead of the whims of individuals, dates back at least to the Code of Hammurabi in 1750 BC and predates democracy by about 1200 years. In America we like to believe that even if our laws aren’t perfect they at least apply to everyone, but it seems there’s little reason to believe that’s true anymore, if it was ever true at all…
The Rule of Law took root in western civilization when the Magna Carta, for the first time in history, placed even Kings under the yoke of Law. The progress of government over the next 800 years could be seen as constant refinements to ensure the protections and punishments of the Law apply to everyone. America’s 240 years have shown mixed results in this area. Ask the slaves, women, religious minorities, or Native Americans of 1776 how protected they felt, or consider how often colonial politicians and plantation owners were punished. But when the Founders wrote “all men were created equal” they meant “equal before the Law”, and that has been enough to build on. Today most rational people believe that everyone really does mean everyone; that The Law must apply to us all or it’s a sham. America’s still not perfect, but we’re improving.
Except where we’re not. We may believe the Law should apply to everyone, but we see every day that it doesn’t. The list is long and depressing, from politicians and political groups who flout the law with impunity, to unpunished bankers, killer cops, polluting companies, and more. Pick your favorite, but the common denominator to them all is summed up by the appalling words of Attorney General Eric Holder who, when discussing the proven, intentional, long-term, and serious crimes of HSBC, told the Senate Judiciary Committee it was “too difficult to prosecute some institutions that could impact the national, even the world, economy” because it would “inhibit the ability to bring more appropriate resolutions”. That’s not the Rule of Law.
As we watch the powerful escape the Law we also see the powerless persecuted by it. Mindless pursuit of small crimes like broken taillights or selling single cigarettes leads to fear and distrust of the police. When these toxic situations lead to death the person who videotapes an atrocity may be punished more than the officer who commits it. Poor communities stagger under a judicial system that traps them into cycles of jail and court fines they can never escape. Whistleblowers exposing criminality are hounded and jailed while the criminals go free and the crimes continue. Again, that’s not the Rule of Law.
How do we restore faith in this most basic building block of our society? We probably can’t look back to punish the unpunished, no matter how richly they deserve it. Our solution lies, as it has since 1776, in looking forward and making continual improvements. To support the Rule of Law we must elect leaders of integrity who support it. We need to create law that is responsive to the dignity and daily life of the common people and protects them from the predations of the elites. The Rule of Law means nothing unless people at every level feel its protections and are willing to live by its constraints. Unless we restore and maintain the fair implementation of the Rule of Law, the fabric of our society will continue to unravel.
Take Care and Make a Great Day!