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David Hegg: Why the rule of law?

Posted: February 10, 2013 2:00 a.m.
Updated: February 10, 2013 2:00 a.m.

Since our founding, the United States of America has been committed to the "rule of law." This term, while familiar, is often not understood. We believe in it, but most of us don’t really know what it means.

The "rule of law" as a societal concept stands in contrast to "arbitrary rule" which most often defines the changing whims of a despot.

The term itself dates back to the 17th century but the elements of this view are much older than that.

The "rule of law" declares that society is best governed by understood and set forth rules that are not subject to change apart from a lawful process.

Under this kind of "rule" both the governed and those governing are subject to the same privileges and restrictions.

I admit this is a terribly simplistic statement of the rule of law, but it will suffice for my purpose here.

What I am really interested in are the grand purposes behind the rule of law.

Winston Churchill seemed to recognize the deficiency in democracy when he declared "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for every other kind."

With all of its challenges, the rule of law in its democratic form is still the best attempt to provide for an ordered and prosperous society.

The rule of law has two main purposes as I see it. First, laws define and defend the freedoms of the law abiding.

For example, laws about ownership of property lay out the stipulations according to which I can claim ownership, transfer ownership, and protect my ownership against those who would to steal from me.

In another sense, laws secure the freedom of the law abiding by clearly delineating what is unlawful and thereby warning us to apply necessary restraint.

By setting boundaries the rule of law allows for great freedom within those boundaries.

Secondly, laws define situations where the freedoms of those who break the law can be limited. For example, the law warns that if you steal my car you will lose your freedom.

Again, while simplistic, this basic understanding of law is clear.

Laws allow for maximum freedom and protection for the law abiding while providing for understood and accepted curtailing of the freedoms of those who choose to break the law.

A problem exists when these two basic purposes of law are reversed.

When laws are passed that erode the freedom of the law abiding the rule of law begins a slow but steady descent into tyranny.

History had demonstrated this again and again. As well, when laws are passed that hinder the restriction of freedom for those who break the law, society becomes less safe and more chaotic.

The rule of law works best when thoughtful legislation by those governing is combined with strong character on the part of the governed.

Such legislation must not curtail the freedoms of those who keep the law, but must provide stricter and stricter curtailment of freedoms for those who break the law.

Every parent gets this. Children are trained in good behavior, not through excuses or blame shifting, but through a careful and calculated system in which increased disobedience brings increased consequences.

A society, like a family, will only remain strong where the rule of law is combined with the foundational ethical proposition that good behavior merits great freedom while bad behavior must have increasingly negative consequences.

David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church and a Santa Clarita resident. Ethically Speaking" runs every Sunday.


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