1. One Ideal among Others
The Rule of Law is one ideal in an array of values that dominates liberal political morality: others include democracy, human rights, social justice, and economic freedom. The plurality of these values seems to indicate that there are multiple ways in which social and political systems can be evaluated, and these do not necessarily fit tidily together. Some legal philosophers (e.g., Raz 1977) insist, as a matter of analytic clarity, that the Rule of Law in particular must be distinguished from democracy, human rights, and social justice. They confine the focus of the Rule of Law to formal and procedural aspects of governmental institutions, without regard to the content of the policies they implement. But the point is controversial. As we shall see, some substantive accounts have been developed, which amount in effect to the integration of the Rule of Law with some of these other ideals.
2. The Contestedness of the Rule of Law
The most important demand of the Rule of Law is that people in positions of authority should exercise their power within a constraining framework of well-established public norms rather than in an arbitrary, ad hoc, or purely discretionary manner on the basis of their own preferences or ideology. It insists that the government should operate within a framework of law in everything it does, and that it should be accountable through law when there is a suggestion of unauthorized action by those in power.
But the Rule of Law is not just about government. It requires also that citizens should respect and comply with legal norms, even when they disagree with them. When their interests conflict with others’ they should accept legal determinations of what their rights and duties are. Also, the law should be the same for everyone, so that no one is above the law, and everyone has access to the law’s protection. The requirement of access is particularly important, in two senses. First, law should be epistemically accessible: it should be a body of norms promulgated as public knowledge so that people can study it, internalize it, figure out what it requires of them, and use it as a framework for their plans and expectations and for settling their disputes with others. Secondly, legal institutions and their procedures should be available to ordinary people to uphold their rights, settle their disputes, and protect them against abuses of public and private power. All of this in turn requires the independence of the judiciary, the accountability of government officials, the transparency of public business, and the integrity of legal procedures.
Beyond these generalities, it is controversial what the Rule of Law requires. This is partly because the Rule of Law is a working political idea, as much the property of ordinary citizens, lawyers, activists and politicians as of the jurists and philosophers who study it. The features that ordinary people call attention to are not necessarily the features that legal philosophers have emphasized in their academic conceptions. Legal philosophers tend to emphasize formal elements of the Rule of Law such as rule by general norms (rather than particular decrees); rule by norms laid down in advance (rather than by retrospective enactments); rule by norms that are made public (not hidden away in the closets of the administration); and rule by clear and determinate legal norms (norms whose meaning is not so vague or contestable as to leave those who are subject to them at the mercy of official discretion). But these are not necessarily what ordinary people have in mind when they call for the Rule of Law; they often have in mind the absence of corruption, the independence of the judiciary, and a presumption in favor of liberty.
Contestation about what the Rule of Law requires is partly a product of the fact that law itself comprises many things, and people privilege different aspects of a legal system. For some the common law is the epitome of legality; for others, the Rule of Law connotes the impartial application of a clearly drafted statute; for others still the Rule of Law is epitomized by a stable constitution that has been embedded for centuries in the politics of a country. When Aristotle (Politics 1287b), contrasted the Rule of Law with the rule of men, he ventured the opinion that “a man may be a safer ruler than the written law, but not safer than the customary law”. In our own era, F.A. Hayek (1973: 72 ff.) has been at pains to distinguish the rule of law from the rule of legislation, identifying the former with something more like the evolutionary development of the common law, less constructive and less susceptible to deliberate control than the enactment of a statute. There is also continual debate about the relation between law and the mechanisms of government. For some, official discretion is incompatible with the Rule of Law; for others it depends on how the discretion is framed and authorized. For some the final determination of a court amounts to the Rule of Law; for others, aware of the politics of the judiciary, rule by courts (particularly a politically divided court) is as much an instance of the rule of men as the decision of any other junta or committee (see Waldron 2002 for a full account of these controversies).
The fact that the Rule of Law is a controversial idea does not stop various organizations from trying to measure its application in different societies. Groups like the World Justice Project concoct criteria and indexes of the Rule of Law, ranking the nations of the earth in this regard. Countries like Norway and New Zealand rank at the top of the Rule-of-Law league and countries like Zimbabwe and Afghanistan at the bottom (see Other Internet Resources). The criteria can be hardly be described as rigorous. But people in business value these rankings as part of their estimation of country risk for foreign investments (see Barro 2000: 215ff.)
3. History of the Rule of Law
The Rule of Law has been an important ideal in our political tradition for millennia, and it is impossible to grasp and evaluate modern understandings of it without fathoming that historical heritage. The heritage of argument about the Rule of Law begins with Aristotle (c. 350 BC); it proceeds with medieval theorists like Sir John Fortescue (1471), who sought to distinguish lawful from despotic forms of kingship; it goes on through the early modern period in the work of John Locke (1689), James Harrington (1656), and (oddly enough) Niccolò Machiavelli (1517); in the European Enlightenment in the writings of Montesquieu (1748) and others; in American constitutionalism in The Federalist Papers and (and even more forcefully) in the writings of the Federalists’ opponents; and, in the modern era, in Britain in the writings of A. V. Dicey (1885), F.A. Hayek (1944, 1960, and 1973), Michael Oakeshott (1983), Joseph Raz (1977), and John Finnis (1980), and in America in the writings of Lon Fuller (1964), Ronald Dworkin (1985), and John Rawls (1971). Because the heritage of this idea is so much a part of its modern application, a few highlights need to be mentioned.
The work of Aristotle on the Rule of Law is still influential. Though he formulated the question of whether it was better to be ruled by the best man or the best laws, he approached that question realistically, noting that it depended not only on the type of law one was considering but also on the type of regime that enacted and administered the law in question (Politics 1282b)
But Aristotle did maintain that law as such had certain advantages as a mode of governance. Laws are laid down in general terms, well in advance of the particular cases to which they may be applied. Moreover,
laws are made after long consideration, whereas decisions in the courts are given at short notice, which makes it hard for those who try the case to satisfy the claims of justice. (Rhetoric 1354b)
There were, he conceded, some cases so fraught with difficulty that they could be handled by general rules—cases that required the focused insight of particular judges; he used the term epieikeia (sometimes translated as equity). But these cases should be kept to a minimum and legal training and legal institutions should continue to play a role in the way they are disposed of. Aristotle’s discussion of the general desirability of rules and his treatment of epieikeia continue to influence modern jurisprudence (see Scalia 1989 and Solum 1994).
3.2 John Locke
John Locke in the second of his Two Treatises of Government (1689) emphasized the importance of governance through “established standing Laws, promulgated and known to the People”. He contrasted this with rule by “extemporary Arbitrary Decrees” (Locke 1689: §§135–7). Now the term “arbitrary” can mean many different things. Sometimes it means “oppressive”. But when Locke distinguished the rule of settled standing laws from arbitrary decrees, it was not the oppressive sense of “arbitrary” that he had in mind. In this context, something is arbitrary because it is extemporary: there is no notice of it; the ruler just figures it out as he goes along. It is the arbitrariness of unpredictability, not knowing what you can rely on, being subject, as Locke put it (1689: §137), to someone’s
sudden thoughts, or unrestrain’d, and till that moment unknown Wills without having any measures set down which may guide and justifie their actions.
In Locke’s story, one of the things that people wanted to get away from in the state of nature was being subject to others’ incalculable opinions—even when those others were thinking as hard and rigorously as they could about natural law. Your thinking might be different from my thinking, and it might turn out that your view of the relation between your interests and my interests and your property and my interests might be quite different from my view of the matter and quite different again from the view of the next person I came across. The whole point of moving from a state of nature to a situation of positive law was to introduce some predictability into this picture.
Unfortunately, having laid down this requirement, Locke complicated matters by adding a substantive principle of respect for private property: “The Supream Power cannot take from any Man any part of his Property without his own consent”, and any law that purports to do so is of no validity (Locke 1689: §138). But then there is a difficulty. Though Locke gave us his own theory of prepolitical property rights—the so-called “Labor Theory” in Chapter Five of the Second Treatise—it was itself far from uncontroversial. People in our day, as in his, disagree about the rival claims of labor and occupancy; they disagree about the background of common ownership; and they disagree about how much anyone may appropriate and how sensitive his appropriation must be to the needs of others. We disagree about all that—in ways that were made evident, for example, in the debates about the Lockean theory of Robert Nozick (1974). And Locke and his contemporaries disagreed too; Locke knew, and signaled in a number of places that he knew just how controversial all this was (Tully 1980: 64 ff; for Locke’s awareness of the controversies, see Waldron 1999: 74–5).
By insisting therefore that positive law is subject to this substantive constraint, Locke subjected the legislature to a discipline of uncertainty. Because the natural right of property was controversial, so the administration of any substantive constraint along these lines was bound to be controversial. And because the substantive constraint was supposed to affect the validity of positive law (Locke 1689: §135), the effect would be that some people—let’s say those who disagreed with Locke about the claims of labor over occupancy—would disagree with him about which positive rules of property are valid and which are not.
Montesquieu’s work on the Rule of Law is best known in connection with his insistence on the separation of powers—particularly the separation of judicial power from executive and legislative authority (see Montesquieu 1748: Bk. 11, Ch. 6). The judiciary has to be able to do its work as the mouthpiece of the laws without being distracted from fresh decisions made in the course of its considerations by legislators and policy-makers. Montesquieu’s views on the separation of powers had a profound effect on the American founding, particularly in the work of James Madison (Federalist Papers, §47).
Elsewhere in The Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu developed a theory of the value of legalism. Noting that despotic governments tend to have very simple laws which they administered peremptorily with little respect for procedural delicacy, Montesquieu argued that legal and procedural complexity tended to be associated with respect for people’s dignity. He associated this sort of respect with a monarchy ruling by law, as opposed to despotism:
In monarchies, the administering of a justice that hands down decisions not only about life and goods, but also about honor, requires scrupulous inquiries. The fastidiousness of the judge grows as more issues are deposited with him, and as he pronounces upon greater interests. (Montesquieu 1748: Bk. VI, ch. 1, p. 72)
This emphasis on the value of complexity—the way in which complicated laws, particularly laws of property, provide hedges beneath which people can find shelter from the intrusive demands of power—has continued to fascinate modern theorists of the rule of law (e.g., Thompson 1975: 258–69).
In the modern debate we also hear echoes of the doctrine propounded in The Spirit of the Laws (1748: Bk. 26, ch. 15, p.510) that “things that depend on principles of civil right must not be ruled by principles of political right”. “Civil right”—Montesquieu’s word for what we call private law—is, he said, “the palladium of property”, and it should be allowed to operate according to its own logic, not burdened with the principles of public or political regulation. A failure of the Rule of Law in this regard is likely to lead to the impoverishment of an economy, as expectations collapse, and owners’ incentives for production and enterprise are undermined (Montesquieu 1748: Bk. V, ch. 14, p. 61).
Writing in the second half of the 19th century, Albert Venn Dicey bemoaned what he saw as a decline in respect for the Rule of Law in England. The Rule of Law used to be a proud tradition that distinguished governance in England both from the executive domination of droit administratif in Francis and also from the fatuous and abstract certainties of paper constitutions in countries like Belgium etc. For Dicey, the key to the Rule of Law was legal equality:
[W]ith us no man is above the law [and] every man, whatever be his rank or condition, is subject to the ordinary law of the realm and amenable to the jurisdiction of the ordinary tribunals. (1992 : 114)
Attractive as this is in the abstract, it exhibited a certain naivety so far as the legal position of state officials was concerned. Officials are and often need to be treated differently in law than the ordinary citizen: they need certain extra powers and they need to be hemmed in by extra restrictions, so that they can be held accountable for the actions they perform in the name of the community. For the ordinary person, the Rule of Law generates a presumption in favor of liberty: everything which is not expressly prohibited is permitted. But for the state and its officials, we may want to work with the contrary presumption: the state may act only under express legal authorization.
Dicey had a knack of expressing the Rule of Law in terms of principles whose eloquent formulations belied their deeper difficulties. His first principle of the Rule of Law was:
290o man is punishable or can be lawfully made to suffer in body or goods except for a distinct breach of law established in the ordinary legal manner before the ordinary Courts of the land. (Dicey 1992 : 110)
This seems fine if we are talking about the imposition of criminal sanctions. But “made to suffer in … goods” can also be read to connote the imposition of restrictions on the use of personal or corporate property, or the giving or withholding of licenses, grants, and subsidies. It can be read as precluding any form of discretionary regulation. Dicey was indeed inclined to disparage all administrative discretion, particularly where it seemed to be superseding what had traditionally been regarded as judicial functions. But can we really do without discretion in modern governance? Some modern scholars of administrative law have denounced Dicey’s account as an “extravagant”, “absurd”, and pernicious version of the Rule of Law (Davis 1969: 27–32).
F.A. Hayek was by training an economist, but he also nurtured an interest in the relation between legal structures and forms of national economy. Hayek’s work on the Rule of Law proceeded in two phases: (1) from his wartime book The Road to Serfdom (1944) through to The Constitution of Liberty (Hayek 1960); and (2) the somewhat different account presented in his trilogy, Law, Legislation and Liberty (1973), an account which is more congenial to the spirit of common law and hostile to the role of legislation.
(1) Governance during wartime necessarily required total mobilization and management of all of the society’s manpower and resources. Hayek warned in 1944 against the retention of anything like this mode of administration in peacetime. He made an eloquent argument that in normal times a society need not be managed but should be governed—and its people largely left to their own devices—within a framework of general rules laid down in advance. These rules would operate impersonally to protect people from one another, not being aimed at any person or situation in particular and not being dependent for their operation on any expectation on the part of government as to what the particular effects of their application would be. But this lack of particular knowledge on the part of the government would be offset by the fact that rules would provide a framework of predictability for ordinary people and businesses. They would know that they would not be molested by the state, provided they operated within the parameters of the general and impersonal rules. Human freedom, on Hayek’s account, did not preclude all state action; but it does require that state action be calculable.
(2) In the 1970s, Hayek began to rethink all this. The attention was still on the implications of Rule of Law for liberty. But now Hayek began to wonder whether the texts of clear general legislated rules would really provide an appropriate framework for freedom. It was, he said, a mistake to think that “by confining the judge to the application of already articulated rules we will increase the predictability of his decisions”. Articulated rules are “often a very imperfect formulation of principles which people can better honour in action than express in words” (Hayek 1973: 118). He favored something more like a common law model of predictability, with principles and solutions emerging from a series of judicial decisions in an almost evolutionary way. The evolution of principles that distinguished themselves by their reasonableness was superior, Hayek thought, to the deliberate imposition of rules by a legislator. According to Hayek, the legislative mentality is inherently managerial; it is oriented in the first instance to the organization of the state’s own administrative apparatus; and its extension into the realm of public policy generally means an outward projection of that sort of managerial mentality with frightful consequences for liberty and markets.
Lon Fuller believed that government in accordance with the forms and procedures of law had a distinctive value that could help close the gap of separation between positive law, on the one hand, and morality and justice on the other. The conventional wisdom of the legal positivists held that laws could be impeccably drafted and even-handedly administered and still be hideously unjust: antebellum slave law in the United States and apartheid law in South Africa were often cited as examples. But Fuller believed, as a matter of political psychology, that there would be reluctance to use the forms of law—general and public norms—to embody and inscribe injustice. He believed that “coherence and goodness [had] more affinity than coherence and evil”, he thought bad things happened in the dark as opposed to the sunlight of legality, and he maintained that “even in the most perverted regimes there is a certain hesitancy about writing cruelties, intolerances, and inhumanities into law” (Fuller 1958: 636–7).
Fuller acknowledged that this link between legality and justice was tentative. It was certainly controversial. But whether this connection held or not, he also wanted to insist that the complete absence of respect for formal criteria of legality might deprive a system of power of its status as law:
When a system calling itself law is predicated upon a general disregard by judges of the terms of the laws they purport to enforce, when this system habitually cures its legal irregularities, even the grossest, by retroactive statutes, when it has only to resort to forays of terror in the streets, which no one dares challenge, in order to escape even those scant restraints imposed by the pretense of legality—when all these things have become true of a dictatorship, it is not hard for me, at least, to deny to it the name of law. (Fuller 1958: 660)
In his 1964 book The Morality of Law, Fuller formulated principles of what he called “the inner morality of law”—principles requiring that laws be general, public, prospective, coherent, clear, stable, and practicable—and he argued that these were indispensable to law-making. Reviewing Fuller’s book, H.L.A. Hart (1965) asked in what sense these principles could be called a “morality”. They seemed to be more like instrumental principles for effective legislation, and on Hart’s view, they were only as moral as the enterprise they made possible.
Fuller responded by denying that the significance of his eight principles was purely instrumental. They also constituted a morality of respect for the freedom and dignity of the agents addressed by the law: what they made possible was a mode of governance that worked through ordinary human agency rather than short-circuiting it through manipulation or terror. This thesis was separate from the connection between law and morality intimated in Fuller 1958. But the two accounts of the moral significance of law were connected in a way that John Finnis explained:
A tyranny devoted to pernicious ends has no self-sufficient reason to submit itself to the discipline of operating consistently through the demanding processes of law, granted that the rational point of such self-discipline is the very value of reciprocity, fairness, and respect for persons which the tyrant, ex hypothesis, holds in contempt. (1980: 273)
Fuller’s work on the Rule of Law had one last nuance. He understood that law constituted a distinct kind of governance that might not be relevant for every task of the state. He contrasted it not just with a Nazi-style reign of terror, but with the sort of managerial administration that might be necessary for allocative decision-making in a mixed economy like the United States in the 1960s. In modern political economy, said Fuller, we face problems of institutional design “unprecedented in scope and importance”. Focusing more on the procedural side of the Rule of Law, Fuller insisted that we lawyers acknowledge that although “[a]djudication is a process with which we are familiar and which enables us to show to advantage our special talents”, still it may be “an ineffective instrument for economic management” (Fuller 1964: 176).
4. Rule of Law and Rule by Law
Some theorists draw a distinction between the Rule of Law and what they call rule by law (see e.g., Tamanaha 2004: 3). They celebrate the one and disparage the other. The Rule of Law is supposed to lift law above politics. The idea is that the law should stand above every powerful person and agency in the land. Rule by law, in contrast, connotes the instrumental use of law as a tool of political power. It means that the state uses law to control its citizens but tries never to allow law to be used to control the state. Rule by law is associated with the debasement of legality by authoritarian regimes, in modern China for example.
Thomas Hobbes may be seen as a theorist of rule by law. In a society whose members disagree about property, he thought it conducive to peace for the sovereign of a society “to make some common Rules for all men, and to declare them publiquely, by which every man may know what may be called his, what anothers” (Hobbes 1647: Bk. II, ch. 6, sect. ix). But Hobbes also thought that it would undermine peace—indeed it would undermine the very logic of sovereignty—for the ultimate law-maker to be bound by the laws he applied to his subjects (Hobbes 1991 : 184).
However, the distinction may not be so clear-cut. Even rule by law seems to imply that rulers accept something like the formal discipline of legality. Unless the orders issued by the state are general, clear, prospective, public, and relatively stable, the state is not ruling by law. So this thin version of legality does still have moral significance in the respect it pays to the human need for clarity and predictability. Rule by law “can be a way a government … stabilizes and secures expectations” (Goodpaster 2003: 686). Even if its use remains instrumental to the purposes of the state, it involves what Fuller called a bond of reciprocity with the purposes of those who are governed: the latter are assured that the promulgated rules are the ones that will be used to evaluate their actions (see also Winston 2005: 316).
Some jurists who maintain the contrast between the Rule of Law and rule by law have a more ambitious agenda. They take seriously the ancient idea that we might be ruled by laws and not by men. One may ask: how is that supposed to happen? After all, all law is made by people and interpreted by people and applied by people. It can no more rule us by itself, without human assistance, than a cannon can dominate us without an iron-monger to cast it and an artilleryman to load and fire it. The jurists who contrast the Rule of Law with rule by law believe they can make this work by focusing on laws whose human origins are in some way diffuse or immemorial. We are not necessarily talking here about natural law, but perhaps about something like customary law or common law—law that is not so evidently a top-down product of powerful human law-makers (Epstein 2011). Common law grows and develops under its own steam, and need not be conceived as a device by which some identifiable humans rule over others. No doubt there is a lot of mythology in this. A more realistic view of common law identifies it with the deliberate and arbitrary rule of an entity that Bentham (1792) called “Judge & Co”. But it remains true that the human element is diffuse in this sort of system, and at any given time the law that emerges is a resultant of the work of many people rather than the intentional product of a domineering majority ruling us from the legislative center of a state.
As we saw in the discussion of Hayek (1973), the other side of this coin is a disparagement of legislation, precisely because its enactment seems patently and undeniably to represent the rule of powerful officials. Legislation is a matter of will. The legislative process produces law simply by virtue of a bunch of people in an assembly deciding that a given law is to be produced. And this is done by the very men—powerful politicians—to whose power the Rule of Law is supposed to be an alternative.
However, most people who value the Rule of Law do not accept this approach. If a statute is properly drafted (if it is clear, intelligible and expressed in general terms) and prospectively enacted and promulgated, and if it is administered impartially and with due process—they will call this an entirely appropriate exercise under the Rule of Law. Indeed that is what many scholars mean by the Rule of Law: people being governed by measures laid down in advance in general terms and enforced equally according to the terms in which they have been publicly promulgated. The argument that it should be put aside because it does not contrast sufficiently with the rule of men seems perverse.
No one doubts that legislation can sometimes undermine the Rule of Law, by purporting for example to remove legal accountability from a range of official actions or to preclude the possibility of judicial review of executive action. But this is not a problem with legislation as such; this is a concern about the content of particular enactments. Rule by judges, too, can sometimes be seen as the very sort of rule by men that the Rule of Law is supposed to supersede (see Waldron 2002: 142–3 and 147–8).
5. Formal, Procedural and Substantive Requirements
Theorists of the Rule of Law are fond of producing laundry lists of the principles it comprises. These principles are of disparate kinds, which may loosely be divided into principles that address the formal aspects of governance by law; principles that address its procedural aspects ; and principles that embrace certain substantive values.
5.1 Formal Aspects
The best known are the eight formal principles of Lon Fuller’s “inner morality of law”: (1964; see also the lists in Finnis 1980: 270–1; Rawls 1999: 208–10; and Raz 1979 : 214–18) generality; publicity; prospectivity; intelligibility; consistency; practicability; stability; and congruence. These principles are formal, because they concern the form of the norms that are applied to our conduct.
So for example, the requirement that laws be general in character, rather than aimed at particular individuals, is purely a matter of form. It is compatible with invidious discrimination so far as its substance is concerned, since even a norm like “A person who is of African descent must sit in the back of any public bus that they ride on” applies, universalizably, to everyone. A formal requirement of generality does not guarantee justice; but that partly reflects the fact that justice and the Rule of Law work as separate criteria for evaluating a political system.
Generality is an important feature of legality, reflected in the longstanding constitutional antipathy to Bills of Attainder. Of course law cannot work without particular orders, but as Raz points out (1979 : 213) the generality requirement is usually taken to mean that “the making of particular laws should be guided by open and relatively stable general rules”. These rules themselves should operate impersonally and impartially.
Besides the form of the rules themselves there is also the nature of their presence in society. The Rule of Law envisages law operating as a relatively stable set of norms available as public knowledge. It requires that laws be public and that they be promulgated well in advance of individuals’ being held responsible for complying with them. These are features that flow partly from the fact that laws are supposed to guide conduct, which they cannot do if they are secret or retroactive. But it is not just a matter of the pragmatics of governance. Laws face in two directions: (i) they impose requirements for ordinary citizens to comply with; and (ii) they issue instructions to officials about what to do in the event of non-compliance by the citizens. Laws that are secret and retroactive so far as (i) is concerned may still operate effectively in respect of (ii). So the Rule-of-Law requirements of publicity and prospectivity have an additional significance: they require that citizens be put on notice of what is required of them and of any basis on which they are liable be held to account.
The requirement of clarity is also important in this regard. Laws must be public not only in the sense of actual promulgation but also in the sense of accessibility and intelligibly. True, much modern law is necessarily technical (Weber 1968 : 882–95) and the lay-person will often require professional advice as to what the law requires of him. It is also an important part of the Rule of Law that there be a competent profession available to offer such advice and that the law must be such as to make it possible for professionals at least to get a reliable picture of what the law at any given time requires. In the nineteenth century, Jeremy Bentham (1782: ch. 15 and 1792) criticized customary law in general, and common law in particular, for failing to satisfy this requirement: the sources of law were hidden in obscurity and though there were spurious appeals to precedent, much of the law was just made up by the judges as they went along.
5.2 Procedural Aspects
We should complement this list of formal characteristics with a list of procedural principles as well, which are equally indispensable to the Rule of Law. We might say that no one should have any penalty, stigma or serious loss imposed upon them by government except as the upshot of procedures that involve (I have adapted this list from Tashima 2008: 264):
- a hearing by an impartial and independent tribunal that is required to administer existing legal norms on the basis of the formal presentation of evidence and argument;
- a right to representation by counsel at such a hearing
- a right to be present, to confront and question witnesses, and to make legal argument about the bearing of the evidence and the various legal norms relevant to the case; and
- a right to hear reasons from the tribunal when it reaches its decision, which are responsive to the evidence and arguments presented before it.
Arguably, such procedural principles matter more in the ordinary person’s conception of the Rule of Law than the formal criteria mentioned in the previous section. When people worried that the American detention facility in Guantanamo Bay from 2003 to the present was a “black hole” so far as legality was concerned, it was precisely the lack of these procedural rights that they were concerned about. What the detainees demanded, in the name of the Rule of Law, was an opportunity to appear before a proper legal tribunal, to confront and answer the evidence against them (such as it was), and to be represented so that their own side of the story could be explained. No doubt the integrity of these proceedings would depend in part on the formal characteristics of the legal norms that were supposed to govern their detention, whose application in their case they could call in question at the hearings that they demanded. It is difficult to make a case at a hearing if the laws governing detention are kept secret or are indeterminate or are constantly changing. Even so, we still miss out on a whole important dimension of the Rule of Law ideal if we do not also focus on the procedural demands themselves which, as it were, give the formal side of the Rule of Law this purchase.
Some procedural requirements are also institutional in character: there must be courts and there must be judges whose independence of the other branches of government is guaranteed. This side of the Rule of Law is connected with the constitutional principle of the separation of powers. That principle is sometimes justified simply on the ground that it is unhealthy for power to be institutionally concentrated in society. But it also has a Rule of Law justification inasmuch as it assigns distinct significance to distinct stages in the making and application of laws (Waldron 2013).
5.3 Substantive Theories
Though many jurists follow Raz 1977 in thinking that the Rule of Law is a purely formal/procedural ideal, others believe in adding a more substantive dimension. They do not think it is possible to sharply separate our political ideals in the way Raz seems to suppose. At the very least, the formal/procedural aspects generate a certain momentum in a substantive direction. Generality—proceeding according to a rule—is often said to contain the germ of justice (Hart 1961: ch. 8). And, stability, publicity, clarity, and prospectivity indicate a pretty fundamental connection between the Rule of Law and the conditions of liberty. We have to be careful, however, to distinguish between allegedly substantive requirements of the Rule of Law and specification of the deeper values that underlie and motivate the ideal even in its formal and procedural requirements.
Some jurists believe that there is a special affinity between the Rule of Law and the vindication and support of private property. Ronald Cass (2004: 131) says that “[a] critical aspect of the commitment to the rule of law is the definition and protection of property rights”.
[T]he degree to which the society is bound by law, is committed to processes that allow property rights to be secure under legal rules that will be applied predictably and not subject to the whims of particular individuals, matters. The commitment to such processes is the essence of the rule of law. Cass (2004: 131)
Others, like Richard Epstein (2011: 10), accept that “[a]nalytically, the rule of law is … a separate conception from private property”. But they think nevertheless that a contingent connection between the Rule of Law and private property can be established by showing that the forms of regulation defenders of private property are concerned about tend to be forms of regulation that the Rule of Law, even on a more austere conception, prohibits.
It is also widely believed—though not necessarily by the same people who associate legality with property—that a system of positive law that fails to respect fundamental human rights should not be dignified with the term “the Rule of Law”. The World Justice Project in 2011 quoted Arthur Chaskalson, former Chief Justice of South Africa, to this effect:
[T]he apartheid government, its officers and agents were accountable in accordance with the laws; the laws were clear; publicized, and stable, and were upheld by law enforcement officials and judges. What was missing was the substantive component of the rule of law. The process by which the laws were made was not fair (only whites, a minority of the population, had the vote). And the laws themselves were not fair. They institutionalized discrimination, vested broad discretionary powers in the executive, and failed to protect fundamental rights. Without a substantive content there would be no answer to the criticism, sometimes voiced, that the rule of law is “an empty vessel into which any law could be poured”. (World Justice Project 2011: 9)
On the other hand, as we have seen, Joseph Raz (1979 : 211) is famous for insisting that “the rule of law is just one of the virtues which a legal system may possess and by which it is to be judged”, and that we should not try to read into it other considerations about democracy, human rights, and social justice. Those considerations, he said, are better understood as independent dimensions of assessment. Tom Bingham, in his book on The Rule of Law, said this in response to Raz:
While … one can recognize the logical force of Professor Raz’s contention, I would roundly reject it in favor of a “thick” definition, embracing the protection of human rights within its scope. A state which savagely represses or persecutes sections of its people cannot in my view be regarded as observing the rule of law, even if the transport of the persecuted minority to the concentration camp or the compulsory exposure of female children on the mountainside is the subject of detailed laws duly enacted and scrupulously observed. (Bingham 2010: 67)
Lord Bingham’s position has an intuitive appeal in the eyes of many commentators, even if it irritates in its casual rejection of a point whose logic it claims to recognize.
Both Chaskalson and Bingham seem to want to fill out the formal/ procedural conception of the Rule of Law with some human rights component. And many liberals are inclined to follow them in that. But this is not the only possibility. Many associate the Rule of Law with a presumption of liberty or the principle of human dignity. Others—Arthur Chaskalson hinted at this—associate the Rule of Law with a substantive dimension of democracy.
All this sounds an analytic danger signal. Once we open up the possibility of the Rule of Law’s having a substantive dimension, we inaugurate a sort of competition in which everyone clamors to have their favorite political ideal incorporated as a substantive dimension of the Rule of Law. Those who favor property rights and market economy will scramble to privilege their favorite values in this regard. But so will those who favor human rights, or those who favor democratic participation, or those who favor civil liberties or social justice. The result is likely to be a general decline in political articulacy, as people struggle to use the same term to express disparate ideals.
6. The Values Underlying the Rule of Law
Even if the principles of the Rule of Law are purely formal in their application, we don’t just value them for formalistic reasons. Most fundamentally, people value the Rule of Law because it takes some of the edge off the power that is necessarily exercised over them in a political community. In various ways, being ruled through law, means that power is less arbitrary, more predictable, more impersonal, less peremptory, less coercive even. It establishes what Fuller (1964: 39–40) called a bond of reciprocity—a mutuality of constraint—between the ruler and the ruled, and in that sense it mitigates the asymmetry that political power otherwise involves.
Connected with this, the Rule of Law is valuable and important because it establishes an environment that is conducive to liberty. According to Hayek’s theory of the Rule of Law—particularly in the early phase of his work (see section 3.5 above)—we value requirements like generality and impersonality because they free us from dependence upon others’ wills:
My action can hardly be regarded as subject to the will of another person if I use his rules for my own purposes as I might use my knowledge of a law of nature, and if that person does not know of my existence or of the particular circumstances in which the rules will apply to me or of the effects they will have on my plans. (Hayek 1960: 152)
Hayek also maintained that requirements of clarity, prospectivity and so on make an important contribution to predictability, which he thought was indispensable for individual freedom. Predictability is often cited as a Rule-of-Law virtue. In his well-known recent book on the subject, Tom Bingham indicated that one of the most important things people needed from the law that governed them was predictability in the conduct of their lives and businesses. He quoted Lord Mansfield to the effect that
[i]n all mercantile transactions the great object should be certainty: … it is of more consequence that a rule should be certain, than whether the rule is established one way rather than the other. (Lord Mansfield in Vallejo v. Wheeler (1774) 1 Cowp. 143, p. 153 (cited by Bingham 2010: 38))
Bingham went on to observe in his own voice that
[n]o one would choose to do business … involving large sums of money, in a country where parties’ rights and obligations were undecided. (Bingham 2010: 38)
These conceptions claim to bring a certain air of reality to our discussions of freedom. There may be no getting away from legal constraint in the circumstances of modern life, but freedom is possible nevertheless if people know in advance how the law will operate and how they have to act to avoid its application. Knowing in advance how the law will operate enables one to make plans and work around its requirements (see Hayek 1960: 153 and 156–7). And knowing that one can count on the law’s protecting property and personal rights gives each citizen some certainty about what he can rely on in his dealings with other people. The Rule of Law is violated, on this account, when the norms that are applied by officials do not correspond to the norms that have been made public to the citizens or when officials act on the basis of their own discretion rather than norms laid down in advance. If action of this sort becomes endemic, then not only are people’s expectations disappointed, but increasingly they will find themselves unable to form expectations on which to rely, and the horizons of their planning and their economic activity will shrink accordingly.
So we need a basis for expectation. The best account of the importance of legal expectations was given by the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, in a work called “Principles of the Civil Code”. Expectation, said Bentham, is “a chain which unites our present existence to our future existence”.
It is hence that we have the power of forming a general plan of conduct; it is hence that the successive instants which compose the duration of life are not isolated and independent points, but become continuous parts of a whole. (Bentham 1931 [1802, 1864]: 111)
The establishment of expectations, said Bentham, is largely the work of law, and the security of expectations is a vital constraint on the action of law: “The principle of security … requires that events, so far as they depend upon laws, should conform to the expectations which law itself has created…”.
Joseph Raz and Lon Fuller took the point about freedom even further. Raz (1979 : 221) suggested that securing an atmosphere conducive to freedom was a matter of dignity: “Respecting human dignity entails treating humans as persons capable of planning and plotting their future” (Raz 1979 : 221). In Lon Fuller’s theory, too, the principles of the inner morality of law were valued for the way they respected dignity:
To embark on the enterprise of subjecting human conduct to rules involves … a commitment to the view that man is … a responsible agent, capable of understanding and following rules…. Every departure from the principles of law’s inner morality is an affront to man’s dignity as a responsible agent. To judge his actions by unpublished or retrospective laws, or to order him to do an act that is impossible, is to convey … your indifference to his powers of self-determination. (Fuller 1964: 162)
What is said here about the connection between dignity and Fuller’s formal principles can be said even more about the connection between procedure and dignity. Procedural principles capture a deep and important sense that law is a mode of governing people that treats them as though they had a perspective of their own to present on the application of norms to their conduct and situation. Applying a norm to a human individual is not like deciding what to do about a rabid animal or a dilapidated house. It involves paying attention to a point of view. As such it embodies a crucial dignitarian idea—respecting the dignity of those to whom the norms are applied as beings capable of explaining themselves.
7. Opposition to the Rule of Law
No account of the Rule of Law is complete if it does not mention the ways in which this ideal is deprecated. The laudatory history of the Rule of Law in the work of thinkers like Aristotle, Locke, Dicey, Hayek and Fuller has been matched by opponents of legality such as Plato (in The Statesman), Thomas Hobbes (at least if the Rule of Law is supposed to take us beyond rule by law), and Carl Schmitt 1923 (in his attack on parliamentarism and on the liberal assumption that rules can prevail even under conditions of endemic crisis).
The criticism by Plato (c. 370 BC) has been the most enduring. From his perspective, which extolled the application of focused intelligence and insight by those in power, insistence upon the use of law in government was
like a stubborn, stupid person who refuses to allow the slightest deviation from or questioning of his own rules, even if the situation has in fact changed and it turns out to be better for someone to contravene these rules. (Statesman 294b–c)
Rules themselves were part of the problem: “People and situations differ, and human affairs are characterized by an almost permanent state of instability” (Statesman 294b). One would use them, only as a (distant) second-best, if one felt one couldn’t discern or trust the appearance of expertise in political life. These concerns are echoed in the work of modern legal pragmatists (like Posner 1995) who place much more faith in insight of judges into new situations than in the application of established rules or strained analogies with ancient precedents.
Echoes of the Platonic critique are also heard in those who privilege decisive executive decision-making in times of crisis, especially if the crises seem to be successive and unending (Schmitt 1923; Posner and Vermeule 2010). Someone’s will has to prevail and, it is said, the Rule of Law does us no service by pretending that the element of will can be eliminated from politics or that decisiveness matters less than the “long deliberation” that was extolled in Aristotle's Rhetoric.
The sense of what good law-making and ordinary legal administration require conveyed by the principles of the Rule of Law is sometimes criticized as archaic. Partisans of the Rule of Law often think in terms of clearly drafted and prospective measures promulgated as norms that can stand in the name of the whole community and form a publicly acknowledged framework for their actions and transactions. But this is not really how law operates in the modern world. As Rubin 1989 points out, a great deal of modern legislation consists simply of a frame-working statute authoring agencies to develop much more detailed rules which are conveyed to the public—to the extent that is necessary—by modes of communication much more complex and nuanced than those envisaged in traditional models of the Rule of Law. For example, the principles comprised in Fuller 1964’s inner morality of law—see section 3.6 above—are recipes perhaps for the production of legislation that looks congenial to legalistic concerns about clarity and predictability. But it has little or nothing to do with the way law actually operates or the way legislatures communicate with agencies and agencies in turn communicate with those whose actions and businesses they supervise (Rubin 1989: 397–408).
At the same time, there are concerns about the mentality that is fostered by an excessive emphasis on the Rule of Law. In its most extreme form, the Rule of Law can have the effect of closing down the faculty of independent moral thought in the officials (the judges, for example: see Cover 1975) or in the ordinary members of a community, making them anxious in the face of uncertainty and distrustful of their own or others’ individual judgments (see Henderson 1990). Sometimes it is important, for the sake of clear and courageous moral judgment, not to exaggerate the importance of something being required by law. Other concerns about the mentality fostered by the Rule of Law include concerns about legalism and the tendency to over-formalize or over-bureaucratize relationships that are more healthily conceived in terms that are more informal. This is not just a matter of legalizing the personal realm; it is also a matter of understanding, for example, the damage that can be done to relations between officials (like social workers) and vulnerable clients by replacing bringing in rigid rules to replace relatively informal professional norms (Simon 1983).
8. Controversies about Application
As well as these debates about the value of the Rule of Law there is, within the camp of those who stand for legality, incessant controversy about what the Rule of Law requires. I have mentioned the general debates between defenders of formal, procedural, and substantive conceptions. There are also a number of particular debates.
How far should it be the mission of the Rule of Law to eliminate or reduce the amount of discretion in the way a society is governed? Some jurists, like Dicey (1885) and to a lesser extent Hayek (1944) insist that official discretion is inherently antithetical to the Rule of Law. Others, like Davis (1969), condemn this as an extravagant position, arguing that discretion is ineliminable in the modern administrative state. The rule of the Rule of Law is not to eliminate discretion, but to ensure that it is properly framed and authorized, and that the application of rules and judicial procedures is preserved for those cases where liberty and well-being are most seriously at stake.
8.2 Rules and Standards
A similar question arises with regard to the use of norms that have the character of standards rather than rules. (A rule is like a numerical speed limit, whereas a standard is like a norm that requires people to drive at a “reasonable” speed.) Legal systems use both types of norm (Sunstein 1994); they use standards for cases where the appropriate decision may vary with ambient circumstances and it seems better to trust the judgment of those who face a particular situation, rather than laying it down in advance. There is an element of respect for individuals’ powers of discernment conveyed in the use of a standard. At the same time standards allow for less certainty in the law, especially when it is difficult for the person attempting to comply with the norm to predict how his judgment will be viewed by an official or by a court. Hayek suggests that
[o]ne could write a history of the decline of the Rule of Law … in terms of the progressive introduction of these vague formulas into legislation and jurisdiction. (1972 : 78)
Whether he is right depends partly on how far we take the Rule of Law to be wedded to predictability: is predictability the be-all and end-all, or does the Rule of Law also promise a kind of legal system that frames and facilitates reason and thoughtfulness in human affairs?
8.3 Law and Social Norms
Sometimes situations can be governed and disputes settled by informal social norms rather than by positive law, formally enacted and enforced (Ellickson 1994). Opinions differ as to whether this should be regarded as something altogether different from the Rule of Law. On the one hand, it looks like a genuine alternative, and little is gained by assimilating its desirable features, such as they are, to Rule-of-Law requirements. On the other hand, it does have something in common with understandings of customary law and conceptions of the Rule of Law (like that of Hayek 1973) that try to separate themselves from enactment and legislation. Also it is sometimes said that the Rule of Law works best when what is enforced in a society can be mapped on to its members’ norms of fairness and common-sense. This makes social participation in the integrity and upholding of law more likely (Cooter 1997). The closer this mapping, the less of an investment there has to be in formal legal promulgation: ordinary know-how can become a reliable guide to legal knowledge. However, one has to be very cautious with this. Modern law is inevitably technical in ways that far outstrip the possibilities of intuitive understanding (Weber 1968 : 882–95). The best that can be hoped for is some sort of occasional consonance between enacted law and informal understandings, and the sporadic character of that may well heighten rather than reduce unpredictability.
Is it reasonable to use the Rule of Law to evaluate the way a society responds to emergencies? It is often thought that emergencies require forms of state action that are more peremptory and less procedurally laborious than those required in normal times. As a matter of fact, a number of possibilities have been discussed (Scheuerman 2006). One is to insist, in the name of the Rule of Law, that existing constitutional safeguards should remain in force; that, after all, is what they were designed for and these situations are where they are most urgently needed. Alternatively, in emergencies, one might rely on a general spirit of flexibility and circumstantial sensitivity in state action that is encouraged even in normal times. On this second option, the Rule of Law does not present itself as a major constraint on the flexibility of state action in face of danger. As a third option, one might seek to preserve something like the Rule of Law by laying down in advance specific legal rules to govern emergencies—rules that suspend ordinary civil liberties guarantees for example or authorize widespread discretion on the part of officials to undertake action that would normally be governed by general rules of law. (Machiavelli proposed a version of this in his Discourses (1517), extolling the institution of dictator in the Roman republic.) This option has the advantage of predictability; but its disadvantage is that it endorses a sort of Rule-of-Law-lite, which may eventually infect or supersede the conception of the Rule of Law that is supposed to be normally applicable.
8.5 International Law
The Rule of Law applies not only within national polities but also increasingly between them, but in this arena its use remains under-theorized (for a helpful discussion, see Crawford 2003). Much of the work that has been done on the international Rule of Law simply adopts uncritically the perspective of those who say, at the national level, that the Rule of Law requires determinacy, clarity, and predictability (see Chesterman 2008). But this may be misconceived when we are talking about states rather than individuals as the subjects of law (Waldron 2011b). States are in a much better position to be informed of what their legal requirements are than individual men and women in society, since they are parties to the treaties and practices that establish international law. (Maybe, though, this point does not hold to the same extent when we consider the murky depths of customary international law.)
Anyway, the liberty of an individual state is not such an important value as the liberty of an individual person. It is not clear that national states need protection from international law and the power that it represents in the way that ordinary men and women need protection from the exercise of political power in society. Moreover, in areas like international human rights law, any presumption based on the Rule of Law in favor of the liberty of national states will tend to have detrimental effects on the liberty or well-being of individual men and women. We have to be careful therefore that invocation of the Rule of Law in the international realm does not undermine the values that are supposed to be secured by this ideal within national polities.
One additional point. It remains controversial whether international institutions themselves—like the United Nations and its agencies—should be bound by the Rule of Law. This odd because these agencies are among the most vociferous advocates of the Rule of Law so far as its application to national states is concerned. The reluctance here stems in large part from an estimation of the importance of diplomatic immunity. UN officials worry that if they and their agencies are held legally liable for malfeasances of various kinds associated with peace-keeping activities, there is a danger that the whole basis of international action might unravel. The danger is probably exaggerated, however, and those who make this argument would not for a moment countenance a similar argument in the sphere of national states.
8.6 Development and Nation-Building
The Rule of Law is often cited as the key to nation-building and to the establishment of new democracies. Indeed it is often argued (e.g., Barro 2000) that a new state needs Rule-of-Law institutions—effective courts and commercial codes that can secure property rights and the enforcement of contracts—more than or even before it needs democratic institutions such as an elected legislature. It is said that a legal system in a developing country dominated by legislative action will neither inspire the confidence nor establish the stability that modern governance and investment require. (For discussion of these arguments, see Carothers 1998 and—more critically—Carothers 2009.) This raises once more the question of relation between the Rule of Law and legislation—only now it takes us also in the direction of considering an rather uncomfortably direct trade-off between Rule of Law values and democracy.
9. The Rule of Law and the Concept of Law
Finally, an analytic question. What is the relation between the Rule of Law and the concept of law? A case can be made—controversial, no doubt—for bringing the two of them together (see Waldron 2008 and also Simmonds 2008). The concept of law could be understood to embrace the fundamental elements of legality, though this identification looks less plausible the more substantive the conception of the Rule of Law is held to be. On this account, a system of governance doesn’t count as law unless it exhibits the characteristic forms and processes that we associate with legality. Otherwise we lose our sense of the institutional distinctiveness of law as a way of ruling a society. We saw earlier that Lon Fuller (1958 and 1964) envisaged a connection along these lines. So, in his later work did Ronald Dworkin. Dworkin (2004) asked us to consider a situation in which judges and lawyers were grappling with hard issues of interpretation or with difficult dilemmas posed by multiple sources of law. He said that in such cases, we might say that what was required as a matter of law might be different from what was required as a matter of justice. That is a familiar separation (even if Dworkin thought it was narrower and more blurred than most legal positivists believed). But he said, it would make no sense to say that what was required as a matter of legality or respect for the Rule of Law was different from what the legal solution was to this case. To figure out the legal solution we have to address the various legal and political materials precisely in light of our commitment to legality.
A conception of legality is … a general account of how to decide which particular claims are true…. We could make little sense of either legality or law is we denied this intimate connection. (Dworkin 2004: 24–5)
However this is not the received position. According to Joseph Raz (1977) and others you cannot understand what the Rule of Law is unless you already and independently understand what law is and the characteristic evils that law is likely to give rise to (which the Rule of Law tries to prevent). On this account, legality represents a particular set of concerns about law that have emerged in our civilization. The fact that these concerns are undoubtedly moral in character (even though they are not comprehensive moral concerns) means that—in Raz’s view—it is better to keep them separate from the concept of law itself, for fear of introducing a moral element into that concept.
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"Rule of Law" redirects here. For other uses, see Rule of Law (disambiguation).
Not to be confused with rule according to higher law.
The rule of law is the principle that law should govern a nation, as opposed to being governed by decisions of individual government officials. It primarily refers to the influence and authority of law within society, particularly as a constraint upon behaviour, including behaviour of government officials. The phrase can be traced back to 16th century Britain, and in the following century the Scottish theologian Samuel Rutherford used the phrase in his argument against the divine right of kings.John Locke wrote that freedom in society means being subject only to laws made by a legislature that apply to everyone, with a person being otherwise free from both governmental and private restrictions upon liberty. The "rule of law" was further popularized in the 19th century by British jurist A. V. Dicey. However the principle, if not the phrase, was recognized by ancient sages and philosophers, such as Aristotle, who wrote "It is more proper that law should govern than any one of the citizens".
Rule of law implies that every person is subject to the law, including people who are lawmakers, law enforcement officials, and judges. In this sense, it stands in contrast to an autocracy, dictatorship, or oligarchy where the rulers are held above the law. Lack of the rule of law can be found in both democracies and dictatorships, for example because of neglect or ignorance of the law, and the rule of law is more apt to decay if a government has insufficient corrective mechanisms for restoring it. Government based upon the rule of law is called nomocracy.
Although credit for popularizing the expression "the rule of law" in modern times is usually given to A. V. Dicey, development of the legal concept can be traced through history to many ancient civilizations, including ancient Greece, China, Mesopotamia, India, and Rome.
In the West, the ancient Greeks initially regarded the best form of government as rule by the best men.Plato advocated a benevolent monarchy ruled by an idealized philosopher king, who was above the law. Plato nevertheless hoped that the best men would be good at respecting established laws, explaining that "Where the law is subject to some other authority and has none of its own, the collapse of the state, in my view, is not far off; but if law is the master of the government and the government is its slave, then the situation is full of promise and men enjoy all the blessings that the gods shower on a state." More than Plato attempted to do, Aristotle flatly opposed letting the highest officials wield power beyond guarding and serving the laws. In other words, Aristotle advocated the rule of law:
It is more proper that law should govern than any one of the citizens: upon the same principle, if it is advantageous to place the supreme power in some particular persons, they should be appointed to be only guardians, and the servants of the laws.
The Roman statesman Cicero is often cited as saying, roughly: "We are all servants of the laws in order to be free." During the Roman Republic, controversial magistrates might be put on trial when their terms of office expired. Under the Roman Empire, the sovereign was personally immune (legibus solutus), but those with grievances could sue the treasury.
In China, members of the school of legalism during the 3rd century BC argued for using law as a tool of governance, but they promoted "rule by law" as opposed to "rule of law", meaning that they placed the aristocrats and emperor above the law. In contrast, the Huang-Lao school of Daoism rejected legal positivism in favor of a natural law that even the ruler would be subject to.
There has recently been an effort to reevaluate the influence of the Bible on Western constitutional law. In the Old Testament, the book of Deuteronomy imposes certain restrictions on the king, regarding such matters as the numbers of wives he might take and of horses he might acquire (for his own use). According to Professor Bernard M. Levinson, "This legislation was so utopian in its own time that it seems never to have been implemented...." The Deuteronomic social vision may have influenced opponents of the divine right of kings, including Bishop John Ponet in sixteenth-century England.
In Islamic jurisprudence rule of law was formulated in the seventh century, so that no official could claim to be above the law, not even the caliph. However, this was not a reference to secular law, but to Islamic religious law in the form of Sharia law.
Alfred the Great, Anglo-Saxon king in the 9th century, reformed the law of his kingdom and assembled a law code (the Doom Book) which he grounded on biblical commandments. He held that the same law had to be applied to all persons, whether rich or poor, friends or enemies. This was likely inspired by Leviticus 19:15: "You shall do no iniquity in judgment. You shall not favor the wretched and you shall not defer to the rich. In righteousness you are to judge your fellow."
In 1215, Archbishop Stephen Langton gathered the Barons in England and forced King John and future sovereigns and magistrates back under the rule of law, preserving ancient liberties by Magna Carta in return for exacting taxes. This foundation for a constitution was carried into the United States Constitution.
In 1481, during the reign of Ferdinand II of Aragon, the Constitució de l'Observança was approved by the General Court of Catalonia, establishing the submission of royal power (included its officers) to the laws of the Principality of Catalonia.
Early modern period
See also: Rechtsstaat
The first known use of this English phrase occurred around AD 1500. Another early example of the phrase "rule of law" is found in a petition to James I of England in 1610, from the House of Commons:
Amongst many other points of happiness and freedom which your majesty's subjects of this kingdom have enjoyed under your royal progenitors, kings and queens of this realm, there is none which they have accounted more dear and precious than this, to be guided and governed by the certain rule of the law which giveth both to the head and members that which of right belongeth to them, and not by any uncertain or arbitrary form of government....
In 1607, English Chief Justice Sir Edward Coke said in the Case of Prohibitions (according to his own report) "that the law was the golden met-wand and measure to try the causes of the subjects; and which protected His Majesty in safety and peace: with which the King was greatly offended, and said, that then he should be under the law, which was treason to affirm, as he said; to which I said, that Bracton saith, quod Rex non debed esse sub homine, sed sub Deo et lege (That the King ought not to be under any man but under God and the law.)."
Among the first modern authors to use the term and give the principle theoretical foundations was Samuel Rutherford in Lex, Rex (1644). The title, Latin for "the law is king", subverts the traditional formulation rex lex ("the king is law").James Harrington wrote in Oceana (1656), drawing principally on Aristotle’s Politics, that among forms of government an “Empire of Laws, and not of Men” was preferable to an “Empire of Men, and not of Laws”.
John Locke also discussed this issue in his Second Treatise of Government (1690):
The natural liberty of man is to be free from any superior power on earth, and not to be under the will or legislative authority of man, but to have only the law of nature for his rule. The liberty of man, in society, is to be under no other legislative power, but that established, by consent, in the commonwealth; nor under the dominion of any will, or restraint of any law, but what that legislative shall enact, according to the trust put in it. Freedom then is not what Sir Robert Filmer tells us, Observations, A. 55. a liberty for every one to do what he lists, to live as he pleases, and not to be tied by any laws: but freedom of men under government is, to have a standing rule to live by, common to every one of that society, and made by the legislative power erected in it; a liberty to follow my own will in all things, where the rule prescribes not; and not to be subject to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, arbitrary will of another man: as freedom of nature is, to be under no other restraint but the law of nature.
The principle was also discussed by Montesquieu in The Spirit of the Laws (1748). The phrase "rule of law" appears in Samuel Johnson's Dictionary (1755).
In 1776, the notion that no one is above the law was popular during the founding of the United States. For example, Thomas Paine wrote in his pamphlet Common Sense that "in America, the law is king. For as in absolute governments the King is law, so in free countries the law ought to be king; and there ought to be no other." In 1780, John Adams enshrined this principle in the Massachusetts Constitution by seeking to establish "a government of laws and not of men."
The influence of Britain, France and the United States contributed to spreading the principle of the rule of law to other countries around the world.
Meaning and categorization of interpretations
The Oxford English Dictionary has defined "rule of law" this way:
The authority and influence of law in society, esp. when viewed as a constraint on individual and institutional behaviour; (hence) the principle whereby all members of a society (including those in government) are considered equally subject to publicly disclosed legal codes and processes.
Rule of law implies that every citizen is subject to the law. It stands in contrast to the idea that the ruler is above the law, for example by divine right.
Despite wide use by politicians, judges and academics, the rule of law has been described as "an exceedingly elusive notion". Among modern legal theorists, one finds that at least two principal conceptions of the rule of law can be identified: a formalist or "thin" definition, and a substantive or "thick" definition; one occasionally encounters a third "functional" conception. Formalist definitions of the rule of law do not make a judgment about the "justness" of law itself, but define specific procedural attributes that a legal framework must have in order to be in compliance with the rule of law. Substantive conceptions of the rule of law go beyond this and include certain substantive rights that are said to be based on, or derived from, the rule of law.
Most legal theorists believe that the rule of law has purely formal characteristics, meaning that the law must be publicly declared (prohibitions or exigencies), with prospective application (punishments or consequences tied to a given prohibition or exigency), and possess the characteristics of generality (usually meaning consistency and comprehensibility), equality (that is, applied equally throughout all society), and certainty (that is, certainty of application for a given situation), but there are no requirements with regard to the content of the law. Others, including a few legal theorists, believe that the rule of law necessarily entails protection of individual rights. Within legal theory, these two approaches to the rule of law are seen as the two basic alternatives, respectively labelled the formal and substantive approaches. Still, there are other views as well. Some believe that democracy is part of the rule of law.
The "formal" interpretation is more widespread than the "substantive" interpretation. Formalists hold that the law must be prospective, well-known, and have characteristics of generality, equality, and certainty. Other than that, the formal view contains no requirements as to the content of the law. This formal approach allows laws that protect democracy and individual rights, but recognizes the existence of "rule of law" in countries that do not necessarily have such laws protecting democracy or individual rights.
The substantive interpretation holds that the rule of law intrinsically protects some or all individual rights.
The functional interpretation of the term "rule of law", consistent with the traditional English meaning, contrasts the "rule of law" with the "rule of man." According to the functional view, a society in which government officers have a great deal of discretion has a low degree of "rule of law", whereas a society in which government officers have little discretion has a high degree of "rule of law". Upholding the rule of law can sometimes require the punishment of those who commit offenses that are justifiable under natural law but not statutory law. The rule of law is thus somewhat at odds with flexibility, even when flexibility may be preferable.
The ancient concept of rule of law can be distinguished from rule by law, according to political science professor Li Shuguang: "The difference....is that, under the rule of law, the law is preeminent and can serve as a check against the abuse of power. Under rule by law, the law is a mere tool for a government, that suppresses in a legalistic fashion."
Status in various jurisdictions
The rule of law has been considered as one of the key dimensions that determine the quality and good governance of a country. Research, like the Worldwide Governance Indicators, defines the rule of law as: "the extent to which agents have confidence and abide by the rules of society, and in particular the quality of contract enforcement, the police and the courts, as well as the likelihood of crime or violence." Based on this definition the Worldwide Governance Indicators project has developed aggregate measurements for the rule of law in more than 200 countries, as seen in the map below. A government based on the rule of law can be called a "nomocracy", from the Greeknomos (law) and kratos (power or rule).
The preamble of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms says "the governments of European countries which are like-minded and have a common heritage of political traditions, ideals, freedom and the rule of law".
In France and Germany the concepts of rule of law (Etat de droit and Rechtsstaat respectively) are analogous to the principles of constitutional supremacy and protection of fundamental rights from public authorities (see public law), particularly the legislature. France was one of the early pioneers of the ideas of the rule of law. The German interpretation is more "rigid" but similar to that of France and the United Kingdom.
Finland's constitution explicitly requires rule of law by stipulating that "the exercise of public powers shall be based on an Act. In all public activity, the law shall be strictly observed."
Main article: Rule of law in the United Kingdom
In the United Kingdom the rule of law is a long-standing principle of the way the country is governed, dating from Magna Carta in 1215 and the Bill of Rights 1689. In the 19th century, A. V. Dicey, a constitutional scholar and lawyer, wrote of the twin pillars of the British constitution in his classic work Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution (1885); these two pillars are the rule of law and parliamentary sovereignty.
All government officers of the United States, including the President, the Justices of the Supreme Court, state judges and legislators, and all members of Congress, pledge first and foremost to uphold the Constitution. These oaths affirm that the rule of law is superior to the rule of any human leader. At the same time, the federal government has considerable discretion: the legislative branch is free to decide what statutes it will write, as long as it stays within its enumerated powers and respects the constitutionally protected rights of individuals. Likewise, the judicial branch has a degree of judicial discretion, and the executive branch also has various discretionary powers including prosecutorial discretion.
Scholars continue to debate whether the U.S. Constitution adopted a particular interpretation of the "rule of law," and if so, which one. For example, John Harrison asserts that the word "law" in the Constitution is simply defined as that which is legally binding, rather than being "defined by formal or substantive criteria," and therefore judges do not have discretion to decide that laws fail to satisfy such unwritten and vague criteria. Law Professor Frederick Mark Gedicks disagrees, writing that Cicero, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and the framers of the U.S. Constitution believed that an unjust law was not really a law at all.
Some modern scholars contend that the rule of law has been corroded during the past century by the instrumental view of law promoted by legal realists such as Oliver Wendell Holmes and Roscoe Pound. For example, Brian Tamanaha asserts: "The rule of law is a centuries-old ideal, but the notion that law is a means to an end became entrenched only in the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries."
Others argue that the rule of law has survived but was transformed to allow for the exercise of discretion by administrators. For much of American history, the dominant notion of the rule of law, in this setting, has been some version of A. V. Dicey's: "no man is punishable or can be lawfully made to suffer in body or goods except for a distinct breach of law established in the ordinary legal manner before the ordinary Courts of the land." That is, individuals should be able to challenge an administrative order by bringing suit in a court of general jurisdiction. As the dockets of worker compensation commissions, public utility commissions and other agencies burgeoned, it soon became apparent that letting judges decide for themselves all the facts in a dispute (such as the extent of an injury in a worker's compensation case) would overwhelm the courts and destroy the advantages of specialization that led to the creation of administrative agencies in the first place. Even Charles Evans Hughes, a Chief Justice of the United States, believed "you must have administration, and you must have administration by administrative officers." By 1941, a compromise had emerged. If administrators adopted procedures that more-or-less tracked "the ordinary legal manner" of the courts, further review of the facts by "the ordinary Courts of the land" was unnecessary. That is, if you had your "day in commission," the rule of law did not require a further "day in court." Thus Dicey's rule of law was recast into a purely procedural form.
James Wilson said during the Philadelphia Convention in 1787 that, "Laws may be unjust, may be unwise, may be dangerous, may be destructive; and yet not be so unconstitutional as to justify the Judges in refusing to give them effect." George Mason agreed that judges "could declare an unconstitutional law void. But with regard to every law, however unjust, oppressive or pernicious, which did not come plainly under this description, they would be under the necessity as judges to give it a free course." Chief Justice John Marshall (joined by Justice Joseph Story) took a similar position in 1827: "When its existence as law is denied, that existence cannot be proved by showing what are the qualities of a law."
East Asian cultures are influenced by two schools of thought, Confucianism, which advocated good governance as rule by leaders who are benevolent and virtuous, and Legalism, which advocated strict adherence to law. The influence of one school of thought over the other has varied throughout the centuries. One study indicates that throughout East Asia, only South Korea, Singapore, Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong have societies that are robustly committed to a law-bound state. According to Awzar Thi, a member of the Asian Human Rights Commission, the rule of law in Thailand, Cambodia, and most of Asia is weak or nonexistent:
Apart from a number of states and territories, across the continent there is a huge gulf between the rule of law rhetoric and reality. In Thailand, the police force is an organized crime gang. In Cambodia, judges are proxies for the ruling political party ... That a judge may harbor political prejudice or apply the law unevenly are the smallest worries for an ordinary criminal defendant in Asia. More likely ones are: Will the police fabricate the evidence? Will the prosecutor bother to show up? Will the judge fall asleep? Will I be poisoned in prison? Will my case be completed within a decade?
In countries such as China and Vietnam, the transition to a market economy has been a major factor in a move toward the rule of law, because a rule of law is important to foreign investors and to economic development. It remains unclear whether the rule of law in countries like China and Vietnam will be limited to commercial matters or will spill into other areas as well, and if so whether that spillover will enhance prospects for related values such as democracy and human rights. The rule of law in China has been widely discussed and debated by both legal scholars and politicians in China.
In Thailand, a kingdom that has had a constitution since the initial attempt to overthrow the absolute monarchy system in 1932, the rule of law has been more of a principle than actual practice. Ancient prejudices and political bias have been present in the three branches of government with each of their foundings, and justice has been processed formally according to the law but in fact more closely aligned with royalist principles that are still advocated in the 21st century. In November 2013, Thailand faced still further threats to the rule of law when the executive branch rejected a supreme court decision over how to select senators.
In India, the longest constitutional text in the history of the world has governed that country since 1950. Although the Constitution of India may have been intended to provide details that would limit the opportunity for judicial discretion, the more text there is in a constitution the greater opportunity the judiciary may have to exercise judicial review. According to Indian journalist Harish Khare, "The rule of law or rather the Constitution [is] in danger of being supplanted by the rule of judges."
Japan had centuries of tradition prior to World War II, during which there were laws, but they did not provide a central organizing principle for society, and they did not constrain the powers of government (Boadi, 2001). As the 21st century began, the percentage of people who were lawyers and judges in Japan remained very low relative to western Europe and the United States, and legislation in Japan tended to be terse and general, leaving much discretion in the hands of bureaucrats.
Various organizations are involved in promoting the rule of law.
The Council of Europe
The Statute of the Council of Europe characterizes the rule of law as one of the core principles which the establishment of the organization based on. The paragraph 3 of the preamble of the Statute of the Council of Europe states: "Reaffirming their devotion to the spiritual and moral values which are the common heritage of their peoples and the true source of individual freedom, political liberty and the rule of law, principles which form the basis of all genuine democracy." The Statute lays the compliance with the rule of law principles as a condition for the European states to be a full member of the organization.
International Commission of Jurists
In 1959, an event took place in New Delhi and speaking as the International Commission of Jurists, made a declaration as to the fundamental principle of the rule of law. The event consisted of over 185 judges, lawyers, and law professors from 53 countries. This later became known as the Declaration of Delhi. During the declaration they declared what the rule of law implied. They included certain rights and freedoms, an independent judiciary and social, economic and cultural conditions conducive to human dignity. The one aspect not included in The Declaration of Delhi, was for rule of law requiring legislative power to be subject to judicial review.
The Secretary-General of the United Nations defines the rule of law as:
a principle of governance in which all persons, institutions and entities, public and private, including the State itself, are accountable to laws that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced and independently adjudicated, and which are consistent with international human rights norms and standards. It requires, as well, measures to ensure adherence to the principles of supremacy of law, equality before the law, accountability to the law, fairness in the application of the law, separation of powers, participation in decision-making, legal certainty, avoidance of arbitrariness and procedural and legal transparency.
The General Assembly has considered rule of law as an agenda item since 1992, with renewed interest since 2006 and has adopted resolutions at its last three sessions. The Security Council has held a number of thematic debates on the rule of law, and adopted resolutions emphasizing the importance of these issues in the context of women, peace and security, children in armed conflict, and the protection of civilians in armed conflict. The Peacebuilding Commission has also regularly addressed rule of law issues with respect to countries on its agenda. The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action also requires the rule of law be included in human rights education.
International Bar Association
The Council of the International Bar Association passed a resolution in 2009 endorsing a substantive or "thick" definition of the rule of law:
An independent, impartial judiciary; the presumption of innocence; the right to a fair and public trial without undue delay; a rational and proportionate approach to punishment; a strong and independent legal profession; strict protection of confidential communications between lawyer and client; equality of all before the law; these are all fundamental principles of the Rule of Law. Accordingly, arbitrary arrests; secret trials; indefinite detention without trial; cruel or degrading treatment or punishment; intimidation or corruption in the electoral process, are all unacceptable. The Rule of Law is the foundation of a civilised society. It establishes a transparent process accessible and equal to all. It ensures adherence to principles that both liberate and protect. The IBA calls upon all countries to respect these fundamental principles. It also calls upon its members to speak out in support of the Rule of Law within their respective communities.
World Justice Project
As used by the World Justice Project, a non-profit organization committed to advancing the rule of law around the world, the rule of law refers to a rules-based system in which the following four universal principles are upheld:
1. The government and its officials and agents are accountable under the law;
2. The laws are clear, publicized, stable, fair, and protect fundamental rights, including the security of persons and property;
3. The process by which the laws are enacted, administered, and enforced is accessible, fair, and efficient;
4. Access to justice is provided by competent, independent, and ethical adjudicators, attorneys or representatives, and judicial officers who are of sufficient number, have adequate resources, and reflect the makeup of the communities they serve.
The World Justice Project has developed an Index to measure the extent to which countries adhere to the rule of law in practice. The WJP Rule of Law Index is composed of 9 factors and 52 sub-factors, and covers a variety of dimensions of the rule of law—such as whether government officials are accountable under the law, and whether legal institutions protect fundamental rights and allow ordinary people access to justice.
The International Development Law Organization (IDLO)
The International Development Law Organization (IDLO) is an intergovernmental organization with a joint focus on the promotion of rule of law and development. It works to empower people and communities to claim their rights, and provides governments with the know-how to realize them. It supports emerging economies and middle-income countries to strengthen their legal capacity and rule of law framework for sustainable development and economic opportunity. It is the only intergovernmental organization with an exclusive mandate to promote the rule of law and has experience working in more than 170 countries around the world.
The International Development Law Organization has a holistic definition of the rule of law:
More than a matter of due process, the rule of law is an enabler of justice and development. The three notions are interdependent; when realized, they are mutually reinforcing. For IDLO, as much as a question of laws and procedure, the rule of law is a culture and daily practice. It is inseparable from equality, from access to justice and education, from access to health and the protection of the most vulnerable. It is crucial for the viability of communities and nations, and for the environment that sustains them.
IDLO is headquartered in Rome and has a branch office in The Hague and has Permanent Observer Status at the United Nations General Assembly in New York City.
The International Network to Promote the Rule of Law (INPROL)
The International Network to Promote the Rule of Law (INPROL) is a network of over 3,000 law practitioners from 120 countries and 300 organizations working on rule of law issues in post-conflict and developing countries from a policy, practice and research perspective. INPROL is based at the US Institute of Peace (USIP) in partnership with the US Department of State Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Strategic Police Matters Unit, the Center of Excellence for Police Stability Unit, and William and Marry School of Law in the United States. Its affiliate organizations include the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Folke Bernadotte Academy, International Bar Association, International Association of Chiefs of Police, International Association of Women Police, International Corrections and Prisons Association, International Association for Court Administration, International Security Sector Advisory Team at the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces, Worldwide Association of Women Forensic Experts (WAWFE), and International Institute for Law and Human Rights.
INPROL provides an online forum for the exchange of information about best practices. Members may post questions, and expect a response from their fellow rule of law practitioners worldwide on their experiences in addressing rule of law issues.
In relation to economics
One important aspect of the rule-of-law initiatives is the study and analysis of the rule of law’s impact on economic development. The rule-of-law movement cannot be fully successful in transitional and developing countries without an answer to the question: does the rule of law matter for economic development or not?Constitutional economics is the study of the compatibility of economic and financial decisions within existing constitutional law frameworks, and such a framework includes government spending on the judiciary, which, in many transitional and developing countries, is completely controlled by the executive. It is useful to distinguish between the two methods of corruption of the judiciary: corruption by the executive branch, in contrast to corruption by private actors.
The standards of constitutional economics can be used during annual budget process, and if that budget planning is transparent then the rule of law may benefit. The availability of an effective court system, to be used by the civil society in situations of unfair government spending and executive impoundment of previously authorized appropriations, is a key element for the success of the rule-of-law endeavor.
The Rule of Law is especially important as an influence on the economic development in developing and transitional countries. To date, the term “rule of law” has been used primarily in the English-speaking countries, and it is not yet fully clarified even with regard to such well-established democracies as, for instance, Sweden, Denmark, France, Germany, or Japan. A common language between lawyers of common law and civil law countries as well as between legal communities of developed and developing countries is critically important for research of links between the rule of law and real economy.
The "rule of law" primarily connotes "protection of property rights." The economist F. A. Hayek analyzed how the Rule of Law might be beneficial to the free market. Hayek proposed that under the Rule of Law individuals would be able to make wise investments and future plans with some confidence in a successful return on investment when he stated: "under the Rule of Law the government is prevented from stultifying individual efforts by ad hoc action. Within the known rules of the game the individual is free to pursue his personal ends and desires, certain that the powers of government will not be used deliberately to frustrate his efforts."
Studies have shown that weak rule of law (for example, discretionary regulatory enforcement) discourages investment. Economists have found, for example, that a rise in discretionary regulatory enforcement caused US firms' to abandon international investments.
In relation to culture
The Treaty on the Protection of Artistic and Scientific Institutions and Historic Monuments or Roerich Pact is an inter-American treaty. The most important idea of the Roerich Pact is the legal recognition that the defense of cultural objects is more important than the use or destruction of that culture for military purposes, and the protection of culture always has precedence over any military necessity. The Roerich Pact signed on April 15, 1935 by the representatives of 21 American states in the Oval Office of the White House (Washington, DC). It was the first international treaty signed in the Oval Office. The Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict is the first international treaty that focuses on the protection of cultural property in armed conflict. It was signed at The Hague, Netherlands on 14 May 1954 and entered into force on 7 August 1956. As of June 2017, it has been ratified by 128 states.
The rule of law can be hampered when there is a disconnect between legal and popular consensus. An example is intellectual property. Under the auspices of the World Intellectual Property Organization, nominally strong copyright laws have been implemented throughout most of the world; but because the attitude of much of the population does not conform to these laws, a rebellion against ownership rights has manifested in rampant piracy, including an increase in peer-to-peer file sharing. Similarly, in Russia, tax evasion is common and a person who admits he does not pay taxes is not judged or criticized by his colleagues and friends, because the tax system is viewed as unreasonable. Bribery likewise has different normative implications across cultures.
Notes and references
2005 map of Worldwide Governance Indicators, which attempts to measure the extent to which agents have confidence in and abide by the rules of society.
*Percentile rank indicates the percentage of countries worldwide that rate below the selected country.
- ^Cole, John et al. (1997). The Library of Congress, W. W. Norton & Company. p. 113
- ^ abThe Oxford English Dictionary has defined "rule of law" as:
See“Civil Affairs and Rule of Law”, Dudley Knox Library, Naval Postgraduate School (accessed October 18, 2013) (quoting the OED).[dead link] The phrase "rule of law" is also sometimes used in other senses. See Garner, Bryan A. (Editor in Chief). Black's Law Dictionary, 9th Edition, p. 1448. (Thomson Reuters, 2009). ISBN 978-0-314-26578-4
The authority and influence of law in society, esp. when viewed as a constraint on individual and institutional behaviour; (hence) the principle whereby all members of a society (including those in government) are considered equally subject to publicly disclosed legal codes and processes.