The Law and the Rule of Law


The law is the set of rules that are created and enforced by a group of people or institutions to regulate behavior. Its precise definition is a matter of long debate, but it can be seen as encompassing social and political orders, principles of fairness and justice and means for orderly and legitimate social change. Governments with a legal system that promotes the Rule of Law are able to keep the peace, preserve the status quo, protect minorities against majorities and guarantee individual rights. Governments without a legal system that upholds the Rule of Law may instead oppress citizens, enslave populations and impose illegitimate orders.

In contrast to many scientific fields, law is normative rather than descriptive or causal in character; a law says what people ought to do or not do. This is a fundamental difference from the laws of empirical science (like the law of gravity) or even social sciences like economics (the law of supply and demand).

As such, law aims to govern people in ways that respect their dignity and are appropriate for the context in which they operate. It does so by establishing what Fuller (1964) calls a bond of constraint between the ruler and the ruled, in ways that mitigate the asymmetry of power inherent in any state.

One important way that law embodies this value is through the principle of due process. This involves giving citizens the opportunity to present their perspectives on the application of norms to their situations and behaviors. Another important way that it embodies this value is through the principle that law must be transparent and accessible. This enables citizens to know what is being done by the law-making and governing institutions in their communities and societies, and to collaborate with them in promoting the Rule of Law.

Several other aspects of the law further engender this sense of integrity and fairness. One is the requirement that law must be general in nature, i.e., that it must apply to all persons – not just those who are directly affected by the particular rule in question. While this is a necessary condition for the Rule of Law, it does not ensure that laws are just.

Moreover, the way in which laws are created and enforced is also an important aspect of the rule of law. Different countries employ different legal systems, with some using a common law system in which decisions are compiled from cases that have been adjudicated, while others use a civil law system in which statutes spell out the rules to be followed. The degree to which a country’s legal system meets the criteria of the Rule of Law is thus determined by a complex interplay between the legal rules, the legal processes, the judicial institutions and the society in which they are implemented. This is why the law is a very complex subject.