The government shutdown and debate over the debt limit has ended — at least for now — with a rather anticlimactic denouement. A majority of Congressional representatives recognized that approving legislation was the only way to avert an economic and political crisis. So last night, they took a vote.
What is extraordinary, from a global and historical perspective, is that not only Congress but also the other branches of government, as well as a plurality of citizens, recognized that was the only legitimate option. No other extralegal option was even proffered. Sure, a few political pundits might have argued that the president should act unilaterally and ignore Congress. But hardly anyone took such proposals seriously, much less believed they would happen. Almost no one, in other words, was willing to overthrow America’s King – the rule of law.
For most of human history, the will of the ruler or ruling class was absolute. The concept of Rex Lex — the king is law – went largely unchallenged. In the 1600s, though, a new idea Lex Rex — the law is king – began to take hold. In 1644, this reversal of tradition gained traction when the Scottish Presbyterian minister Samuel Rutherford published Lex, Rex, a defense of the rule of law against royal absolutism. The idea spread, and within a hundred years, America would become the greatest example of what happens when the “law is king.”
Today, we take the concept, so it’s useful to define what it means. As the World Justice Project explains, the rule of law is a system in which the following four universal principles are upheld:
• The government and its officials and agents as well as individuals and private entities are accountable under the law.
• The laws are clear, publicized, stable and just, are applied evenly, and protect fundamental rights, including the security of persons and property.
• The process by which the laws are enacted, administered and enforced is accessible, fair and efficient.
• Justice is delivered timely by competent, ethical, and independent representatives and neutrals who are of sufficient number, have adequate resources, and reflect the makeup of the communities they serve.
The rule of law matters because it provides the “underlying framework of rules and rights that make prosperous and fair societies possible.” Acton’s Samuel Gregg notes that:
Rule of law is essential if you want to have a functioning economy. You cannot have a functioning economy without secure property rights. You cannot have a functioning economy unless contracts are enforced. You cannot have a functioning economy if government officials can act in an arbitrary fashion.
The events of the last few weeks have shown how elected officials have few qualms about wasting their own political capital or our time, money, and attention in an attempt to get what they want. But even lawmakers don’t question that the law is king or that they too are its subjects.
When it comes to politics we have many reasons to despair. But as long as lex rex remains the norm in America, we also have reason to hold out hope for our country’s future.