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Sunday, July 08, 2007

Government of Laws or of Men? Seeking a State of Justice

Government of Laws or of Men? Seeking a State of Justice
Image © Austin Cline
Original Poster: National Archives
Click for full-sized Image

One of the most important legal developments of the Enlightenment was the idea that human society should be governed according to neutral laws rather than the arbitrary whims of human leaders. This idea didn't originate solely in the Enlightenment, of course, but it was this era of change and progress during which the principle was extensively developed and realized in the form of new, modern governments.

There's no guarantee that the laws will be just and fair, but so long as they are constrained by constitutional limits and reversible through the democratic process, then they are preferable to unconstrained, unchecked whims of even the most just human beings. We choose people to represent us and adhere to the limits of their offices, not to be authoritarian personalities who seek to rule through sheer force of will.

John Adams wrote what may be the most famous expression of this principle for the constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts:

In the government of this commonwealth, the legislative department shall never exercise the executive and judicial powers or either of them: the executive shall never exercise the legislative and judicial powers, or either of them: the judicial shall never exercise the legislative and executive powers, or either of them: to the end it may be a government of laws and not of men.

There are a variety of ways in which the basic rule of law can be overturned in favor of the arbitrary rule of human whim, and it appears that the Bush regime is working hard to hit every single one of them. There's extensive secrecy to prevent the sovereign people from knowing what their representative leaders are doing in their name. There's been manipulation of votes and voters to ensure that the preferred candidates hold public office.

Bush has attached caveats to signed laws expressing an intention to follow and/or execute only those portions he wants to. The Bush administration has been deeply involved with politicizing federal agencies like the Justice Department, making them arms of conservative ideology rather than professional administrative institutions. Bush has most recently undermined a judicial sentence of someone convicted of preventing other officials in the executive branch from being brought to justice for possible crimes. Additional crimes committed by officials in the executive branch may include the authorization of torture, something contrary to both domestic and international law.

In Religion, Politics, and the Christian Right: Post-9/11 Powers in American Empire, Mark Lewis Taylor writes:

The Straussian aversion to liberalism and accompanying worries about "mass democracy" create not a representative elite that is often found in healthy democracies but more a governing elite that views itself and its actions as being above the masses, and usually also above the laws of its country.

Just one striking example of this is evident in the tendency of President Bush and his advisors to suspend or reinterpret international law to allow for "aggressive counter-resistance techniques" of interrogation, which amount to torture. Over 1,200 pages of official memos about interrogation and torture — as propounded by officials of the Bush regime during and after the Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns — show that "these policy makers do not like our system of justice, with its checks and balances, and rights and limits, that they have been sworn to uphold."

Those in power today act very much like a governing elite who believe they are entitled to govern simply because they know better — and they keep extensive secrets to ensure that no one else knows very much. The system looks less like a representative democracy and more like a monarchy that's being run according to the needs and power of influence-peddlers. Those who can access the most personal influence get what they want; those who can't, lose out completely.

Former Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg wrote in 2003 that "a state lacking justice cannot survive." A state that is not governed by equal, neutral laws is one that necessarily lacks justice. It should be no surprise, too, that there are so many other ways in which the Bush administration has undermined the overall principle of justice and not through undermining the rule of law, but it is the rule of law which I am most concerned with here. Indeed, it's something we should all be most concerned with because without the rule of law, there's nothing keeping our nation free and democratic.

Democracy is more than just the presence of elections and popular voting; democracy requires the presence of certain basic conditions which are necessary for a free, liberal, and just state to exist. In almost everything the Bush administration has done in every possible area, they have attacked and/or undermined those conditions. The result is a nation that is worse of in terms of basic democratic liberty, justice, and security than it was when Bush came into office.

This poster was originally an encouragement to work harder and faster - "there is no speed limit" when it comes to war production.

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