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Politics & Society

The Rule of Law: a Western Phenomenon?

The strong Rule of Law is a major achievement in a nation, but it is weakest among many of the poorest nations and is only moderately present throughout much of the world.  


Listening to Judge Sotomayor answer the questions of members of the Senate Judiciary Committee reminded me of the tremendous benefit of living in a nation where the rule of law is very strong. Both the questioners and Judge Sotomayor assumed that laws should be passed for the common good, criminal and civil cases be solidly grounded in the evidence, and the laws applied in a just and fair way. Even the most heated exchanges accepted this foundation; what disagreement existed revolved around the method of achieving fairness.

It is not so everywhere. A group at the World Bank developed measures of governance, one of which was the strength of Rule of Law within a country, defined as "the extent to which agents have confidence in and abide by the rules of society, including the quality of contract enforcement and property rights, the police, and the courts, as well as the likelihood of crime and violence."

Even among the developed nations of Europe, the Rule of Law is not evenly distributed. It is noticeable that the Rule of Law is weakest among many of the poorest nations, as described in Paul Collier's The Bottom Billion,but the Rule of Law is only moderately present throughout much of the world. We hear stories of tourists jailed for years for seemingly small (or non-existent) offenses, or the unconscionable treatment of political dissidents, ethnic minorities, or other groups, and shudder. We wonder how such corrupt and dysfunctional systems continue to exist.

The numerical evidence - and that of history - provides a different perspective. The strong Rule of Law is a major achievement in a nation. It can exist only to the extent that most members of society abide by the laws, support the punishment of those who do not, and public disclosure of proceedings so that oversight is possible. While we bemoan swindlers like Bernie Madoff, or episodes of police brutality and corrupt officials, the very act of having publicity about investigations and convictions reinforces the Rule of Law.

Judge Sotomayor's confirmation hearings dominated much of the news for a week. Even those people who did not follow the questions and answers closely were nonetheless affected. They knew that the appointment was based on qualifications - even if senators disagreed about which were most important - and not on payoffs or influence peddling. The attention paid to the process gave, in itself, a boost to the Rule of Law.

As we hear about other nations struggling with pockets of lawlessness or generalized corruption, it is worthwhile to recognize the blessings we take for granted from this adherence to the Rule of Law, and the fragility of the process. It does not take a large number of people to threaten it, but it cannot be overturned unless the majority fail to come to its defense.

The next time the Governance Matters group at the World Bank posts its map, let's hope that more nations have moved into a stronger Rule of Law - and that the processes in the U.S. have stayed strong.

First Published in Monastic Musings

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