Tuesday, March 15, 2011

On the Rule of Law

Winning the Revolution was the easy part for the Founding Fathers, which should tell you the level of difficulty of what came next.

Somehow, in the wake of defeating the most powerful nation on earth in an eight-year war that stretched over thousands of miles – in a world where nothing moved faster than 3mph – and divided families, communities and regions far more than the later Civil War did, they had to figure out what kind of government they wanted to put in place of the one they just threw out. Tearing down is always easier than building back up.

It took them a couple of tries to do this.

The first attempt, the Articles of Confederation, was a dismal failure. Building a national government on a foundation of states’ rights is sort of stupid when you think about it, and eventually it foundered on its own contradictions. There’s a lesson in there somewhere, I’m sure of it.

Eventually they came up with the Federal Constitution of 1787, which seems to have done the trick. We’re still working with that framework, as it has been amended from time to time, and it has done a masterful job of guiding this country through its many and varied trials.

These were two very different models of government, and yet they had one thing very much in common: they were based on the idea that there was a single guiding principle that would enable the citizens of a well-founded republic to preserve their liberty in the face of grasping power, one that would override all other concerns put forth by political leaders and force them to respect the rights of the people who were their sovereigns.

That principle was the rule of law.

“[T]he very definition of a republic is ‘an empire of laws, and not of men,’” wrote John Adams in 1776.

Nobody in a well-founded republic was to be above the law. All political power was to be exercised in accordance with laws and procedures that applied to everyone, that were clearly laid out and that were rigorously enforced.

The American political system is based on this. It is enshrined in the Constitution. It is embedded in the government of the states, the counties, the cities and the townships. There is no “decider” anywhere in the American system at any level, and any elected official who makes that claim should be immediately jailed as a traitor, or at the very least tied to a chair and painted in rainbow hues by a large class of kindergartners. This is an empire of laws, not men, and nobody in power can put their whims, vendettas, agendas or desires above those laws and still call themselves an American. Such are the actions of despots, tin-horn dictators, and tyrants.

Such are the actions of the banana-republic junta currently ruling Wisconsin.

I live in a state where the Republican Senate Majority leader has decided on his own whim not to count the votes of Democratic Senators until such time as he deems it appropriate. He has given no just cause for this violation of law and practice beyond the specious declaration that the Democrats remain in contempt of the Senate, a contempt they were declared in because of their legally-permissible absence and which – even if you buy the rather unconvincing arguments made to justify that declaration – is now rendered moot by their return. Nor has he given any indication of what conditions he will deign to recognize the right of elected representatives to vote in their designated chamber – a right that does not evaporate when ignored, contrary to his assertions. Apparently all this guy thinks he needs to do when he has power is declare his displeasure and suddenly the voice of the people is heard no more.

That is government by men, not laws. And that is un-American.

I live in a state where the Attorney General, rather than upholding his oath of office and investigating the obvious violations of law and constitution, is instead holding a call-in poll to determine what he should do next. Seriously. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t called his office to confirm it myself. Apparently he feels that it is his choice whether to obey the most solemn oath he has sworn – that his personal preference is to be above the law. And the poor guy doesn’t even have the backbone to have a personal preference. He’s going to figure that out by counting the whims of those who know his phone number.

That is government by men, not laws. And that is un-American.

There are a great many people in power in the United States right now who seem to think that the mere fact of being sworn into office gives them absolute authority to do whatever they want, without need to consult anyone or anything beyond their own personal interests.

That is government by men, not laws.

And that is un-American.

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