The concept of the rule of law goes back to ancient times and it can essentially be summed up by the well-known phrase, “nobody is above the law.” In other words, in a governing system based on the rule of law, everybody is held equally accountable under the same laws. In contrast, a system that is based upon the rule of men, such as a tyranny, monarchy, theocracy, or oligarchy, occurs when governance, laws, and the administration of justice are determined by the interests of a single person or group of people. While rule of law is a fundamental principal in many countries today, the World Justice Project points out that effective rule of law itself depends on the upholding of the following four principles.
The law applies to everyone
Perhaps one of the defining features of the rule of law is that, under such a system, the law is applied equally to all citizens, including the lawmakers themselves. Rule of law simply means that the law itself, rather than individuals or organizations, reigns supreme. Therefore, even people who enforce and administer the law, such as police officers, judges, and lawyers, are still subject to the same laws as everybody else is.
The laws are not secret or arbitrary
For a rule of law system to function, the laws themselves must be public, fair, stable, and understandable. If the laws change too frequently or arbitrarily, or the laws themselves are not publicized, then citizens have little hope of being able to abide by those laws. Furthermore, the laws must not violate fundamental human rights, which would again make them unfair to citizens.
The laws are enforced fairly
It’s one thing for the laws to be written fairly, but if they are enforced in such a way that is either arbitrary or unfair then the rule of law begins to break down. For example, if a jurisdiction passes laws against drug use, but then only enforces those laws against a particular ethnic minority or social group, then the laws are not being enforced fairly. Citizens living under a rule of law system have a right to know that the laws are being administered and enforced in a way that is fair and accessible.
The justice system is fair
Not only must laws be enforced in a fair and non-arbitrary manner, but so too must justice be delivered in a way that is fair, accessible, and efficient. In other words, the judicial system must stand independent of outside interference, such as by politicians or law enforcement agencies. Instead, the justice system must function to administer the law in such a way that citizens can expect to be treated fairly, regardless of their race, gender, beliefs, or economic status.
The rule of law is foundational to many functioning governments around the world. By limiting the arbitrary exercise of power by a single person or group, the rule of law helps establish a system whereby the fundamental rights and dignity of individuals and groups within a country are respected. While the rule of law is rarely perfectly applied, it is an ideal towards which many countries continue to strive.