The Rule of Law doesn’t simply mean a nation that is ruled by law, as the name implies. All nations have laws. North Korea has laws. Nazi Germany had laws. The Rule of Law means that the laws apply to everyone, equally. For example: No one may commit murder, no exceptions. No one may commit fraud, no exceptions. Everyone lives under the same law. There is not one law for some and another law for others. The Rule of Law is the guiding principle used by civilized nations to decide whether its laws are at least fair, if not just. Under the Rule of Law, one’s income, occupation, sex, race, national origin, languages spoken, or any other factors are totally irrelevant (with the exception of distinguishing between minors and adults). The law would be blind to your status or position.
We need intellectual leaders who are willing to work for an ideal, however small may be the prospects of its early realization. They must be men who are willing to stick to principles and to fight for their full realization, however remote.
—F. A. Hayek
But what happens, for example, when the law treats people differently when their income levels are different? Tax rates and total taxes assessed differ by income level; therefore, they treat citizens unequally. That violates the Rule of Law. Outside government, charging for goods and services by income level is exceptionally rare. Safeway doesn’t verify its customers’ incomes before determining what the price of groceries shall be; there aren’t different prices for different customers. Gasoline costs the same per gallon for everyone, whether they drive a Ford or a Ferrari. Everyone pays the same price, without discrimination. This same principle, if applied to taxes, would mean that all adults would pay the same amount to the State, regardless of income.
Agricultural subsidies are paid to farmers, but to no one else. In fact, non-farmers must pay subsidies to farmers. Thus, one’s occupation means that the law treats people differently. Some get State payments, and others do not. Adhering to The Rule of Law, however, would require that if one class of persons are paid subsidies, then all classes of persons must be paid subsidies.
Corporate subsidies follow the same pattern. Some corporations in some industries receive low-interest loans and direct subsidies from the Export-Import Bank. The Rule of Law, however, would require that such laws apply to everyone — or to no one. So, if business subsidies are handed out, then everyone would be entitled to the same subsidies and aid.
From just these few examples, it can be seen how far the country has strayed from the Rule of Law. There is much jockeying among various constituencies for the keys to power, so that the winning party’s supporters and members can receive special favors, subsidies, aid, and preferences — in short, unequal treatment violating the Rule of Law. If one of the guiding principles of a civilized society is that all laws must apply equally to everyone, that all people are equal before the law, then the breakdown of the Rule of Law has sinister consequences.
We can take the same principle into other areas of law, as well. If I cannot commit murder, then neither can the president. If I cannot legally spy on others — tapping computers, sending surveillance drones buzzing around, examining anyone’s bank records, listening in on telephone conversations — then neither can State officials, except by law in accordance with the Constitution. If I commit crimes and face arrest for what I’ve done, then so must State officials bear consequences when they commit crimes.
It’s easy to see that a society governed by the Rule of Law is necessarily a society with limited government. Having everyone trying to live at everyone else’s expense, as the great Frederic Bastiat put it, wouldn’t even be possible, as it logically relies on granting State favors and special aid to some and not all. Limited government, and not expansive government, would be what we’d be living under if the Constitution, the Supreme Law of the Land, were obeyed. The State would be small enough that no income tax would be necessary. Most people would have no significant dealings at all with the federal government in any form.
It’s simple to determine if a given law follows the Rule of Law. Does it apply to everyone, or just some? Does everyone bear the burden and reap the rewards, whatever they may be, or do one class of people bear the burden for others to profit?