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The Tool of Law


(I wrote this on January 31, 2003)

One of the justifications for democracy rests upon something we call The Rule of Law. In an absolutist monarchy or dictatorship, the leader (and her favored elite) seemingly gets to do whatever she wishes, and does not have to follow the rules she promulgates for others. That's not fair! We the people resent that! However, in a democracy, supposedly the same rules apply to everybody, regardless of race, class, or title.

I say "supposedly" because statistical studies and my own experience both teach me that my own democracy does not apply the same rules to everybody. The law is full of exceptions and loopholes. Those who enforce the laws are often mistaken, racist, sexist, and heterosexist. People with money can often evade the full force of the law, while people without money are often treated harshly.

However, even if The Rule of Law were absolute, perhaps especially if The Rule of Law were absolute, I do not think it would be a good thing. Despite the ideals of our Founders, all people are created unequal. Each one of us is unique -- in our genetic makeup, in our backgrounds, memories, appetites, and current positions on the planet. Why should each unique individual be required to follow the same rules? Rules that work for me won't necessarily work for you. We all have different personalities, different workstyles, different physical and emotional needs, different amounts of energy and intelligence ...

This is why bureaucracies drive us nuts. Bureaucrats (myself included) try to fashion rules and regulations that will apply to all situations. If the rules are too simple, then people complain that the rules shouldn't apply to their particular circumstances, they complain that the rules aren't "fair". If the rules attempt to cover every possible circumstance, then they become so complex that nobody really understands them, and people complain that the rules are too complicated (and still aren't fair!).

As my mother would often say when I questioned her rules, the world isn't fair, so I'd better get used to that. But the childlike quest for fairness and justice continues in the adult quest for democracy and The Rule of Law. It also shows up in fundamentalist religions that attempt to prescribe one set of rules or commandments that all should follow for the good of all.

(In fact, there is no significant difference between a democracy's laws and a fundamentalist religion's commandments.)

The Rule of Law doesn't really exist, probably can't exist, and probably would be a bad thing if it did exist ... but its abstract goodness motivates us to create, enforce, and follow laws regardless of whether these laws make sense for each of us.

Laws are not to be revered. Unless you wrote the law yourself, a law is a rule that somebody else wrote, probably somebody you've never met who knows nothing about you or your circumstances. In some cases the person writing that law was openly hostile to your and your circumstances! So why should you follow it?

Fear of punishment? But what if you knew you would never be caught? Well, maybe you agree with the law, so you follow it anyway. Or, maybe you don't have time to figure out your own rule, so you follow the rule provided. But if you disagree, and you think you won't be caught ... what is The Rule of Law then? Simply a way for a stranger to control your behavior when nobody is watching.


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