What is the rule of law? It is often heard—from the mouths of politicians, judges, CEOs, and the President himself—but does anyone stop and ponder its true meaning and implications? The rule of law is the belief that all people fall equally under the law. This means that no one person or group is above the law, and conversely, no one person or group is below the law. The reason the concept of the rule of law is so powerful is because it is an idea accepted shared by many; and ideas do not die, as V from V for Vendetta so vehemently pointed out.
The rule of law does not deal with specifics of how people should live, but the concept that everyone should live under the same rules. It does not differentiate among wealth, title, birth, social standing, or stature; that is why the rule of law is of such immeasurable importance. The United States is founded on the principle of the rule of law—this notion that all people play on fair grounds. The Founding Fathers repeatedly pushed the idea that if a government’s rule were to be legitimate and just, it would impose the law equally to all (Greenwald). Thomas Jefferson frequently expressed the significance of equality under the law.
In America, no other distinction between man and man had ever been known but that of persons in office exercising powers by authority of the laws, and private individuals. Among these last, the poorest laborer stood on equal ground with the wealthiest millionaire, and generally on a more favored one whenever their rights seem to jar" (Forman 407). Those who built our country did so with this kind of equality in mind: The “poorest laborer” can go up against the wealthiest elites and stand a fair chance. It was of the utmost importance that this was possible, because the alternative is unthinkable:
Of distinction by birth or badge, [Americans] had no more idea than they had of the mode of existence in the moon or planets. They had heard only that there were such, and knew that they must be wrong. A due horror of the evils which flow from these distinctions [by birth or badge] could be excited in Europe only, where the dignity of man is lost in arbitrary distinctions, where the human species is classed into several stages of degradation, where the many are crushed under the weight of the few… (Forman 407) Common law is derived from accepted principles—rather than by one’s status or similar factors—and is applied equally to all.
A nation without the distinction of the rule of law is a nation of lawlessness. Unfortunately, while the rule of law is boasted of by the United States, rarely has it been adhered to. Throughout the history of the U. S. , the basic principles of the rule of law has been violated—from slavery, to the treatment of Native Americans, to the denial of the right to vote for woman (Greenwald). It is not a too far a stretch to suggest that this nation has been founded on hypocrisy. Even the Founding Fathers expressed the desirability of have a society with a few very rich and many poor, with a big gap between them (Greenwald, The Rule).
However, they made clear that this gap must be the outcome of fair play. Only then could it be justifiable. The problem is that this gap has emerged, but not as an outcome of fair play, and is therefore far from justified. The crimes committed by Wall Street in the past decade crashed the U. S. economy; but instead of being held responsible for these crimes, they were bailed out with government money. Eighty-five billion dollars went to AIG alone from the Federal Reserve and U. S. Treasury Department (Goodman 136).
It is this injustice that led to the current ongoing Occupy Wall Street movement. Insurance and finance companies were deemed “too big to fail,” so an exception was made. By definition, there are no exceptions to the rule of law. The list of present-day transgressions goes ever on. Illegal wiretapping, censorship, Sedition Acts, the War on Terror, the suspension of Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights by the National Defense Authorization Act, media monopoly by elites such as Rupert Murdoch: It is unjust to say the least. Much of this is not new, however. Habeas corpus has been suspended in the ast, Jim Crow laws specifically targeted African Americans, there has always been a gap between rich and poor, and the wealthy have always had the most power. The rule of law has been little more than an ideal for which to strive. So why is this matter of such importance now? What makes today’s inequality any different from yesterday’s? The difference is that the nation has abandoned all pretense of the rule of law. No longer is it an ideal to be striven for. It has become acceptable, even preferable in some cases, for the most wealthy not to suffer the same consequences as the rest of society.
Meanwhile, others face one of the most unforgiving justice systems in the world, with constitutional rights unjustly revoked; all one has to do is cry National Security or terrorist. The law itself is being used to destroy equality and protect the powerful. Unfair treatment under the law has pervaded the U. S. since its very creation, often by identifying specific groups not as people, but as sub or even non-humans. Black slaves had no rights as they were considered to be merely 3/5 of an actual person.
Even past slavery, they were chained by Jim Crow laws, Black Codes, segregation that lasted till 1954, and racial targeting arrests and incrimination that persists still today. The “savage” Native Americans suffered forced removal through U. S. policy in the 1800s as imposed by the Indian Removal Act (at least they got Cadillacs). Women were denied their right to vote until 1920, when the 19th Amendment was passed. It would be impossible to ignore the fact that inequality on a massive scale has taken place throughout American history.
The real issue, however, is not the pervasive disregard for the rule of law that has plagued the U. S. for centuries. It is how it has created a two-tiered justice system in America, and how acceptable that system has become. The argument being made that political elites should not be held accountable under the law was first established when President Gerald Ford had to explain why he was pardoning Richard Nixon. He began by saying, “law is no respecter of persons,” but went on to say that “the law is a respecter of reality. ” Meaning: If—in the judgment of political leaders—it’s sufficiently disruptive, ivisive, or distracting to hold powerful political officials accountable under the law on equal terms with ordinary Americans, then they should be exempt and the rule of law suspended, all in the name of political harmony, of ‘moving on. ’ (Greenwald, The Rule) This is the first blatant example of the basic principle of the rule of law being violated, and this violation being subsequently—openly—promoted. Now, it is Ford’s very arguments that are being used to justify why the most powerful should be withheld punishment from their actions.
The argument is well-summarized by recent administrations’ mantra, “It’s not just for the good of the immunized criminal, but in the common good, to Look Forward, Not Backward” (Greenwald). The pardon of Nixon spearheaded the current acceptation of immunity from the law for those with the most power. Economic and social injustice and subsequent cover-ups and secrecy in regards to it has resulted in nation-wide movements for equality and government transparency. The Wikileaks movement, with Julian Assange at its head, exposed many incidents of corruption and corporate favoritism at a federal level.
A case in point would be the leak of executive emails exposing underhanded dealings of Bank of America (De La Merced). The effect of this external whistle blowing resulted in Julian Assange being marked as a threat. Shortly after, he was targeted by financial corporations when Visa, PayPal, MasterCard, and Bank of America refused to process any transaction intended for Wikileaks, effectively shutting them down (Banks and WikiLeaks). As leader of Wikileaks—a perfectly legal organization—Assange was personally targeted, having even his own personal assets frozen by banks.
Mainstream media turned against him, marking him as a threat to America and a traitor (though he is not even a U. S. citizen; he is Australian). Every tactic was employed to cut off the head of the snake that so endangered corporations. Essentially they succeeded as Julian Assange, crippled by his frozen bank account, was crushed under legal fees of courts and his attorneys. Succeeding the movement generated by Wikileaks came the Occupy Wall Street movement, set out to spread the message: We are through with the inequality purveyed by the law that exempts the powerful from consequences. Unlike ith Wikileaks, this movement has no leader, and nor should it. The movement belongs to everyone—to what protesters call “the 99%. ” Because of this, media has been largely unsuccessful in placing a face on the movement, though not for lack of trying. Unlike with Assange, on-location crimes and the lunatic fringe in relation to Occupy Wall Street are lost in such a large sea of protesters. Without a large public figure to stick to, reports of wrongdoing just seem to fall through (Coscarelli). If Wikileaks was the snake and Assange its head, then similarly could the Occupy movement be likened to the hydra.
Its heads are many, and with every incarceration, beating, or mistreatment of a protester; two more take his place in anger at the system. There is no single head of the movement to target. Organized in its own disorganization, Occupy Wall Street is making a huge impact, and its message is being heard. Though the movement was disregarded if not completely ignored in its earliest stages, it has now gained media attention, for better or worse. While some praise the effort as calling a much needed check on rampant corporate power, others disagree.
Those who misunderstand the message characterize the protesters as lazy hippies wanting money for nothing and antagonizing those who worked for their wealth. In reality, the movement encompasses everyone one who is in a struggle with injustice at any level. It is not about people acting spitefully toward those who earned wealth; it is about how the financial and banking industry cheated millions out of their money and homes, obtained government subsidies and bail-outs, and how those banking elites were then protected from punishment for their crimes by a government that labeled them as too big to fail.
We have “rule of law”, but only when convenient. Then, an exception may be made as seen fit. By definition, that is the polar opposite of the rule of law. No one is above the law; no one is below it. Justice is blind and treats everyone equally from the poor, to the ever-evaporating middle class, to the top one percent of American society. The rule of law needs to be reinstated into the American legal system and promoted once again. With it back in place, citizens can once again expect fair treatment under the law by a justified government, equally bound by the fundamental law.
The envisioned change is no different than the visions held by the Founding Fathers for the U. S. : The law should stand as the “bedrock foundation on which American society would be built, the essential guarantor of fairness and justice” (Greenwald 268). As a result, the law shall be adhered to equally by all—the ultimate in predictability as John Locke and Thomas Hobbes viewed it to be. The poorest of poor and the lowest of low shall never get different treatment for the same actions as the top tier of society.
Should such a statement be seen as extreme in any case, that only serves as testament to how far modern society has turned from the true equality sought for by those who established this country. Those who envisioned a country governed by law. Is such a concept really so outrageous and extreme? What is the alternative? Never should a financial manager from a Fortune 500 company walk away from a hit and run with dismissed felony charges because “convictions have some pretty serious job implications for someone in [his] position” (Kim).
As stated by the victim in said case, neither the elite’s financial prominence nor the financial situation of the victim should be factors in how either side is treated. With the exception of the criminals, cheats, thieves, and crooks of the country; there are essentially no downsides to such a change. The rule of law, when adhered to in its truest sense, ensures security in safety, predictability, and equality by the law. It keeps society stable. What society could ever be held when the law shifts, sways, and waivers for different people?
It must be solid, as it is our very foundation. Without it, society crumbles. In its ideal implementation, a homeless man on the streets would suffer the same consequences as the CEO of Chase and a senator would for the same crime. There is a reason why the IMF and World Bank required countries to prove that they are living under the rule of law in order to borrow money. Business cannot be built on a nation whose law does not treat all equally with the same sureness. The economy needs the predictability and security provided by a civilization under the rule of law.
It allows it to flourish; without it, the economy crashes, those responsible go unpunished, and billions of tax payer dollars go to the private industry in the form of bailouts. Politically, fidelity in the rule of law ensures faith in one’s government. In that sense, it strengthens the government. If those elected are subject to the same rules as all others, then they trust their representatives more. With the rule of law, also comes transparency of the law; and with that, officials will become more honest—not simply for reelection, but because they can be held accountable as easily for their actions as anyone else.
This creates a cycle of trust and honesty between officials and those who elect them, with more legitimized power of the government ensuing. The only foreseeable consequence of having a society based on the purest form of the rule of law, is a lack of flexibility. There will be a shift in the court system, where judges will lose legislative power of judicial activism in favor of strict constructionism. No longer will judges be able to decide how the law should be applied on an individual, case-by-case basis. Compassion will be taken out of the legal system as much as corruption.
No matter how thin you slice it, there will always be two sides. Only, one side of the matter much outweighs the other. Change is inevitable. Change is not just coming, it is here. The degradation of the rule of law in the United States is a vicious cycle of cause and effect. As the disparities of wealth and power grow greater and greater, the legal system diverges further and further from its core principles. And the more unequal the law becomes, the more opportunities it creates for the wealthy and powerful to exploit it to further the gap and reinforce their advantages, perpetuating the cycle.
Eventually, the imbalance will become too great and overwhelm and consume the law altogether (Greenwald 269). This will ultimately lead to contention across the nation; in fact, such discord is already visible. The Occupy Wall Street movement has gained huge momentum in the past year. Unfair and unequal treatment has led to protesting, the likes of which have not been seen since the Seventies. It is impossible to ignore the movement, whose message is universal and applies to so many. No one, whether it be the Wall Street Bankers or Congressmen or one’s next-door neighbor, may commit a crime such as thievery and walk away without consequences.
All are to be held accountable for their actions on a level playing field. That is what the movement is about. Let there be no more confusion about why the Occupiers are protesting: The 99% want the restoration of the rule of law as the basic principle of our legal system in the United States. Make no mistake, politicians and policy makers will make huge adjustments in response. It is impossible to ignore the uproar caused by the blatant lack of equality under the law. Yes, laws will be created in order to prevent such theft as committed by the financial industry, but those will most likely be temporary and ineffective.
More importantly, the two-tiered justice system will have to be reworked to the satisfaction of the people. It will most likely take years, but it is only a matter of time now. The nation needs to get away from the idea that certain people, if powerful enough, do not need to be held accountable for their actions because they are too important. It needs to return to its core values and principles of law, and advocate it vehemently. And it will, in time. Throughout history—well before the founding of America—civilizations have gone through cycles of lawlessness and corruption to a very lawful and structured society.
Surprisingly, prohibition saw both the emergence of organized crime as well as some of the most honest and well-respected law enforcement agents. Eliot Ness, as a prohibition agent, brought in a legendary team of law enforcement agents known as the Untouchables due to their nature as being both fearless and incorruptible (Heimel). It is likely that this will happen once again as corruption and injustice become more pervasive and, eventually, unbearable. Living under the rule of law is a requirement for a structured, secure, stable, and predictable society.
The problem America faces today is the flagrant disregard for the very principle of the rule of law. It is as if the justice system has abandoned all pretense of defending the idea that justice is blind. In fact, the media advocates the opposite. Often, media portrays it as beneficial to society that the elite are shielded from punishment, when it is quite the opposite. This thought process that has been established has led to a two-tiered justice system that immunizes the most powerful, but at the same time, subjects those below to one of the harshest, most draconian criminal systems.
It is unacceptable. We have become a nation of hypocrites: We refuse to deal with nations who we do not believe follow basic guidelines of society that are completely ignored by the U. S. The country must be reestablished as a nation of laws, not of men.
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