The words are the same, but their order changes everything. Is “the Law King” or “the King Law?” The first promises a society governed by even-handed laws affecting all people equally. The latter makes an entire nation’s might dance to the whim of the guy in charge.
A country’s political atmosphere will depend on which of those systems prevails. Only a few years ago, if asked to describe North American politics, I would have replied that we have rule of law — imperfectly administered, sure — but rule of law nevertheless.
The certainty I held back then has vanished. There are too many clues to the contrary.
There are many ways to abuse the rule of law, but to keep it simple, let’s look at two categories. The rule of law can either be fairly written, but unequally applied, in which case the the enforcers of the law are at fault, or the law as written can be fundamentally unfair and not apply equally to all people.
By way of example, a court recently ruled that protesters were illegally obstructing a rail line. The judge gave law enforcement direct instructions to uphold CN Rail’s rights for unimpeded use of their railway. The protesters were to be cleared away.
Police not only refused to uphold the judicial order, they befriended the protesters they were ordered to disperse, even joining in a “drum circle”. They were given special treatment that would never have been afforded to others in similar circumstances.
Real equality under law is necessary. Wasn’t that the point of the civil rights movement? MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech spoke of the check that they came to D.C. to cash — the right for ALL men to be guaranteed life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The rights that others enjoyed were their own birthright as well, and they were justified in demanding them.
Think of the abuses happening in countries even today, where guilt is assumed until innocence can be proven, and the trial is decided before the evidence is presented. They are unjust systems in which no sane Westerner would want to be the defendant.
Think of Governments who have abused their powers by targeting individuals for solely partisan reasons. Nixon’s name is still mud today because of his abuse of political office. His enemies list, for example addressed “how [they] can use the available federal machinery to screw [their] political enemies.”
True government “by and for the people” cannot single out individuals or groups for advantageous or hostile treatment, without attacking the premise that all men are created equal. We cannot conduct ourselves in an us-and-them tug-of-war on the basis of race, income, or other reasons while claiming to esteem the value of all human life.
Trial by a jury of our peers is intended to protect us from exactly this problem; so political interests from on high cannot predetermine the result of a trial. It is a safeguard from the bloody purges that plague other nations with less robust freedoms.