Are We To Be Governed by Laws Or Men?

Do laws and rules exist as common standards to govern our conduct, to be enforced as fairly and justly as is possible, or are we to be governed by people based on questions of identity? We have at present in our contemporary society an evil tendency to be governed by people, such that any appeal to a given standard is done cynically and without any intention of being the basis of a widespread or universal application, such that we condemn some people for doing something while excusing other people of doing the same things based on our view of the people themselves, not based on any reasonable standard of conduct. This is a tendency to be lamented, as it leads people to treat us as hypocrites whose every judgment is colored by bias and double standards, thus leading people to reject anything we have to say as being motivated by partisanship rather than justice. What I propose is that when we think of the desirability of being governed by laws, we apply these laws to ourselves and reflect on how these laws are likely to deal with our own conduct, then apply these laws to those close to us as to their likely effects, and then to apply these laws to our enemies, to note cases where people seek to propose laws for others that they exempt themselves from, thus demonstrating themselves to be corrupt and without legitimacy.

How is it that laws demonstrate the legitimacy of authorities? An authority is legitimate if they conceive of a legal order as being above them and conceive of themselves as being subject to the rules that they propose. Anytime we witness people proposing rules that they seek to exempt themselves from, we are witnessing the law being used as a weapon against ordinary people but not elites, and we are witnessing government by people using laws as a mere pretext to increase control without the rules actually being seen as applicable to all in a just fashion. In contrast, if we see people willing to put themselves under the jurisdiction of the laws that they see as desirable for others, we are witnessing the establishment of the law as a standard to be followed by all and applied to all. It is probably unsurprising that this willingness appears to be low in contemporary ages where lawfare runs rampant but where a genuine respect for the legal order is remarkably low, and laws are seen as something applying to others and not to ourselves if we are possessed of enough power.

We may see, therefore, that a major threat to any republican order is the cynicism that results from the law being divorced from any universal application. When people grow intolerant of being limited by the laws but still wish to apply those laws to opponents, one creates an atmosphere where the law ceases to serve as a universally agreed standard that one’s behavior is to be governed by and merely a useful means of condemning those who are out of power by those who are in power. This tendency makes it intolerable for people to accept being out of power, which tends to increase the violence involved in the political process and the intractability of political problems, which cannot be solved because the base of obedience to the law and acceptance of authority has been replaced by a detailed knowledge of which authorities are considered to be friendly or hostile.

How is such a situation to be reversed? When we look at republics, the tendency of people to replace the laws as fundamental in times of prolonged crisis is associated with the death of those republics and their replacement by less representative forms of authority. Being governed by laws and not by partisanship towards certain people means that no one is exempt from having their failures punished. When we wish for people to be above the law, to make them immune from politically motivated prosecution, we make the law ineffective at governing people, and the consequences of that are generally not very easy to recover from because the example of disregarding inconvenient laws is too contagious to be easily repented of. When one has cast off the restraint of law, where is one to learn restraint once again without it being forced upon oneself?

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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