Rule of Law: Is it all it’s cracked up to be?

One of the most complex topics I’ve been pondering on lately is the imperative of the Rule of Law. I am sure this subject has been widely debated by jurists and produced countless literature, but discussions I have had with lawyer-types and other people from other backgrounds have left me unsatisfied. There is something about the inescapable supremacy of this premise that makes feel uneasy and seems to clash with my core values.

First things first, I understand the reason for it. The need for a common, well-defined set of rules to restrict an arbitrary use of power is aligned with what I consider justice. Secondly, I am by no way implying that there should not be laws or that laws should not be reinforced. There must be a countless number of cases where the non-enforcement of the Rule of Law has led to anarchy and chaotic circumstances which only emphasized its need. The Montreal Murray-Hill riot of 1969 comes to mind, when a strike by the local police force led to 16 hours of turmoil, culminating in death and destruction.

But this does not take away the fact that the case for the imperative of the Law feels incomplete. It is often the darling argument for right-wing politicians, and has provided a shield for conservative powers to slow down progress. It is often used as an excuse protect the interests of the powerful, as Voltaire once quipped “there is no God, but don’t tell that to my servant, lest he murder me at night”, mocking the fact that belief in God was once the basis of Rule in his own country. The argument itself seems to be a vehicle for conformity and preference for the status quo.

There are countless numbers of widely cited cases of humanities greatest triumphs (some of which I had outlined here) where the Rule of Law was disobeyed, while some of the World’s greatest atrocities have been carried out with full compliance of the legal framework. Surely, there must a moment when even its most hardcore defendants will see it impossible to reconcile respect for the legal framework with their other values?

An answer that is often provided is that the only time when it is morally permitted to disobey the law is when the law is deemed unjust. But is justice an objective concept or is it only in the eyes of the beholder? In full disclosure, I admit that I write about this now because the issue has often arisen in my native Catalonia, where it is a hot topic given that the non-respect for the Rule of Law has managed to land 8 politicians and and 2 civil-society leaders in jail. The independence camp’s claim that the Spanish Law must not be recognized because it is unjust has been replied to with scorn from opposing sides, pointing out that in XXIst Century Europe, the case for government abuse does not hold up to scrutiny. But who is to judge?

Furthermore, the Rule of Law depends on slow and bureaucratized systems, with a clear preference to existing rules and institutions. It is rarely the case that laws change simultaneously with society, as they always lag years behind.

Instead, I would like to think that the glue that is holding society together in peace is common sense, or another set of shared values. I would like to think my next door neighbour does not kill me is because she holds the principle of the sanctity of human life, not only because it is illegal. In my view, an ideal society works not because its citizens fear the law, but because they come to understand they are not the only ones on the planet and they need to respect one another.

So, “what do you propose?” is the next logical question. I do not know yet. However, I feel it has something to with the fact that we look for black and white everywhere while reality is grey. An often cited quote by Churchill comes to mind: “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…”.  Perhaps Rule of Law, like Democracy, is just a flawed way to organize society, but its the best one we have.

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