The rule of law essentially states that nobody is above the law, which treats everybody equally and impartially.
It means that laws are created and enforced in such a way that even the highest government official is not above the law. Moreover, the law treats everybody equally, irrespective of one’s class, race, or religion.
The rule of law is an essential aspect of modern democracies, and we will discuss how it exists in various nations. We will also look at specific instances (like tax evasion) that deal with the concept. Finally, we will also talk about the strengths and weaknesses of the rule of law.
Rule of Law Definition
Naomi Choi defines the rule of law as
“the mechanism, process, institution, practice, or norm that supports the equality of all citizens before the law, secures a nonarbitrary form of government, and more generally prevents the arbitrary use of power.” (2023).
The World Justice Project, an international organization that promotes the rule of law, lists four universal principles that define the concept:
- Accountability: Everybody, including the government, is accountable to the law.
- Just law: The law must be open & clear, publicized, and applied evenly.
- Open government: The processes of creating & enforcing laws should be accessible & fair.
- Accessible & impartial justice: Finally, justice should be delivered timely by competent judges.
Rule of Law Examples
- Tax Evasion: Often the rule of law does not work when popular consensus does not align with enacted laws. In other words, what the law dictates to be right differs from what people believe. For example, in Russia, tax evasion is considered quite normal. Even when one confesses to not paying taxes among friends or colleagues, they are not looked down upon. This is because people view the country’s tax system as unreasonable and therefore do not mind evading it (Pope, 2016). Similarly, bribery is seen in different lights in different cultures.
- Environmental Protection: Environmental laws often demonstrate the rule of law in practice, but can also reveal its weaknesses. Legislation protecting natural resources and biodiversity is a common feature in many nations, yet the enforcement of these laws often lags behind. For instance, in Brazil, despite having stringent laws against deforestation, the destruction of the Amazon Rainforest continues at a rapid pace due to lax enforcement and corruption (Fearnside, 2017). Thus, the rule of law becomes ineffective when not enforced diligently and consistently.
- Intellectual Property: Another field where popular consensus usually goes against laws is intellectual property. Throughout the world, there are strong copyright laws that protect intellectual property, such as films or video games. However, the general population cares little about these laws, and piracy prevails everywhere. Peer-to-peer file-sharing networks allow people to get pirated material—say downloading a movie through torrent—and its popularity is only increasing with time (Bica-Huiu, 2017).
- Traffic Laws: On a more everyday level, the enforcement of traffic laws is a simple, yet significant demonstration of the rule of law. These laws are designed to ensure the safe and efficient use of public roads. In countries such as Japan, rigorous adherence to traffic laws is the norm. However, in other places like Egypt, chaotic traffic and frequent violations illustrate the weak enforcement of these rules (Hassan, 2018). This highlights the disparities in the application of the rule of law across different contexts.
- Economics: The rule of law is directly linked to the economic state and overall development of a nation. An effective judiciary can act as a watchdog over the government and make sure that it doesn’t spend money unfairly. The economist F.A. Hayek also discussed how the rule of law is beneficial for a free market economy (1994). Under the rule of law, individuals can confidently make investments because they know that the government will not unfairly intervene in any way. In both China and Vietnam, the transition to a market economy led to greater adoption of the rule of law as it is important for foreign investors. (Peerenboom, 2004).
- Religious Freedom: Religious freedom is another area where the rule of law plays a critical role. For example, in the United States, the First Amendment protects the freedom of religion, allowing individuals to practice any religion or none at all without persecution. However, in countries where religion and state are closely intertwined, such as Iran or Saudi Arabia, religious minorities often face discrimination or persecution, pointing towards the lack of rule of law in this regard (Pew Research Center, 2020).
- Emergencies: A crucial issue related to the rule of law is emergencies: to what extent should laws be enforced during such times? Some believe that, during emergencies, the state needs to act quickly without going through the usual laborious procedures. However, this can sometimes undermine the rights of individuals. For example, the most recent global disaster was the Covid-19 pandemic, and it forced governments to act quickly. In India, the government announced a sudden nationwide lockdown and many migrant workers suffered immensely due to travel restrictions.
- Freedom of Press: The freedom of the press is an integral part of a functioning democracy, safeguarded by the rule of law. In countries like Norway and Finland, the press operates with significant freedom, critiquing government actions and contributing to the free flow of information (Reporters Without Borders, 2022). However, in nations like North Korea or Eritrea, the press is heavily controlled and censored by the government, thus indicating a breach of the rule of law in these contexts.
- International Law: Besides nations, the rule of law can also apply internationally, such as to the United Nations. The UN General Assembly has considered the rule of law an agenda item since 1992 and continues to emphasize its importance in various issues (women’s safety, children in armed conflict, etc.). However, at times, the UN also claims some diplomatic immunity. Scholars argue that UN officials worry that if they completely adhered to the rule of law, they wouldn’t be able to commit the wrongdoings they do for their peace-keeping activities (Waldron, 2016).
- War Crimes: The rule of law extends to the realm of international conflicts and war crimes. International bodies such as the International Criminal Court (ICC) work to enforce these laws and hold individuals accountable for their actions during times of conflict. However, their enforcement power is often limited, as seen with the lack of accountability for alleged war crimes in conflicts such as the Syrian Civil War (Amnesty International, 2022). This underscores the challenges that international institutions face in enforcing the rule of law globally.
Rule of Law Around the World
- Ancient Greece: Although the expression “the rule of law” is modern, the concept itself goes as far back as the ancient Greeks. Aristotle was its earliest proponent, who wrote that “It is more proper that law should govern than any one of the citizens”; he further added that those with power (the ruling government) should only be guardians or “servants of the laws”. Although Plato differed significantly from this stance (he believed in a benevolent monarchy with a philosopher king), he still felt that the best men would always abide by the law. Today, scholars argue that the rule of law was either a dominant value in Athenian democracy or existed along with popular sovereignty (Ostwald, 1986).
- The United Kingdom: In the United Kingdom, the rule of law dates back to the Magna Carta (1215), or perhaps even earlier, to the times of Alfred the Great (9th century). The Anglo-Saxon king, Alfred the Great, created a law code called the Doom Book, whose laws applied equally to all people. Then in 1215, the Magna Carter was established, which limited the powers of the Crown and created protective measures for citizens. Finally, the British jurist A.C. Dicey created the concept of “the rule of law” in the 19th century, defining it through three key features: the supremacy of law, equality before the law, and the predominance of legal spirit (Wormuth, 1949).
- The United States: The US Constitution is the supreme law of the United States, and its authority demonstrates how the country follows the rule of law. All government officers (including the President and Supreme Court judges) pledge first and foremost to uphold the Constitution—no human leader is above the rule of law. This does not mean that the country cannot have any new laws; the legislators are free to write new statutes, but they must lie within their defined powers and should not impinge on the rights of the people. The judiciary can intervene if any laws passed by Congress are unconstitutional (US Courts).
- Thailand: Unlike developed countries, developing countries find it somewhat difficult to adhere to the rule of law, and Thailand is a good example of this. Awzar Thi writes that the rule of law is quite weak or nonexistent in most of Asia: the police favor the rich in Thailand while the judges are proxies for the ruling party in Cambodia (2008). This is so common that citizens simply accept it; they are more worried about the police fabricating evidence against them or having their cases unresolved for years. Overall, the rule of the law has mostly existed in principle, not in practice.
- India: The Indian Constitution was enforced in 1950 and guides the rule of law in the country. The Constitution (which is also the longest-written constitution in the world) serves to limit the opportunity for government discretion, and the country’s judiciary ensures that Constitution (especially the Fundamental Rights) is upheld. Some scholars like Robinson have criticized the Indian judiciary for its judicial activism, that is, going beyond the applicable law to consider larger societal impacts. However, many argue that such actions are necessary to safeguard the Constitution and preserve judicial independence. (News18, 2011).
Strengths & Weaknesses of the Rule of Law
The rule of law limits arbitrary power and promotes social development, but an excessive emphasis on it can also be harmful.
Beginning with Aristotle, countless thinkers have written about the need for the rule of law. Its most important role is to protect the rights of individuals: everybody is equal in front of the law and has a set of fundamental rights.
The rule of law also clearly charts out working procedures for the government, thereby limiting the abuse of power and promoting accountability. Finally, as we discussed in the examples, the rule of law promotes stability and creates a more conducive economy, as happened in China.
However, the rule of law also has some weaknesses. Aristotle’s teacher, Plato, was strongly against the rule of the law because he believed that people and situations change; one cannot keep using the same old rules (The Statesman)
Modern legal pragmatists also suggest that the insights of judges are more reliable than established laws or ancient precedents. Moreover, in times of emergencies, the rule of law may cause more harm than good due to its laborious procedures.
Finally, an excessive emphasis on the rule of law can make judges and citizens lose all independent moral thought. When we obsess too much about the written law, we may end up forgetting about real-world implications.
The rule of law dictates that everybody, including the government, is equal in front of the law.
It protects individual rights and discourages the arbitrary use of power. Developing nations usually struggle to fully adopt the rule of law. Despite its various advantages, the rule of law can also be harmful when obsessively followed, as new situations often require new solutions.
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US Courts. “Overview – Rule of Law”. https://www.uscourts.gov/educational-resources/educational-activities/overview-rule-law
Waldron, Jeremy (2016). “The Rule of Law”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. doi: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/rule-of-law
Wormuth, Francis. (1949). The Origins of Modern Constitutionalism. Harper and Brother