Rule of Law

2012-08-29 22:09:14

The term rule of law is probably one of the most widely cited terms in the field of civil rights throughout the world without a clear consensus as to what it means. Popular slogans with great emotional appeal, such as ‘‘a nation of laws not of men,’’ merely mask the confusion.

At its simplest level, rule of law identifies a regulatory system under which the state asserts control over the social and political life of its citizens through a system of legally enacted laws applicable to, and open to review by, all citizens and monitored by an effective juridical system. Such a system provides stability and predictability. One can safely plan one’s actions according the parameters provided by disclosed law and can rely upon the state to enforce that law. This system substitutes law and legal enforcement for anarchic exercise of force and violence by individual actors. Most countries throughout the world accept this understanding of rule of law.

In the West, particularly in the United States, many assume that the term includes more substantive content. Since the concept emerged as a shield against the arbitrary authority of the despot, by implication it bore within itself concepts protective of individual liberty. According to this understanding, rule of law should include concepts such as equality before the law for all citizens, procedural and substantive due process, and subservience of all (including sovereigns and those wielding governmental authority) to the authority law.

At its most extreme, substantive rule of law would include principles of justice, often drawn from ideas of natural law.


References and Further Reading

  • Tamanaha, Brian A. On the Rule of Law: History, Politics, Theory. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

See also Due Process; Equal Protection of Law (XIV)