In a limited government administered according to the rule of law, the rulers use power following established principles and procedures based on a constitution. By contrast, when the rulers wield power capriciously, there is rule by the unbridled will of individuals without regard for established law. The rule of law is an essential characteristic of every constitutional democracy that guarantees rights to liberty. It prevails in the government, civil society, and market economy of every state with a functional constitution.
The rule of law exists when a state’s constitution functions as the supreme law of the land, when the statutes enacted and enforced by the government invariably conform to the constitution. For example, the second clause of Article VI of the U.S. Constitution says:
The third clause of Article VI says, “The Senators and Representatives before mentioned and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation to support this Constitution.” These statements about constitutional supremacy have been functional throughout the history of the United States, which is the reason that the rule of law has prevailed from the country’s founding era until the present.
The rule of law, however, is not merely rule by law; rather, it demands equal justice for each person under the authority of a constitutional government. So, the rule of law exists in a democracy or any other kind of political system only when the following standards are met:
- laws are enforced equally and impartially
- no one is above the law, and everyone under the authority of the constitution is obligated equally to obey the law
- laws are made and enforced according to established procedures, not the rulers’ arbitrary will
- there is a common understanding among the people about the requirements of the law and the consequences of violating the law
- laws are not enacted or enforced retroactively
- laws are reasonable and enforceable
There is a traditional saying about the rule of law in government: “It is a government of laws and not of men and women.” When the rule of law prevails in a democracy, there is equal justice and ordered liberty in the lives of the people. In this case, there is an authentic constitutional democracy. When rule of law does not prevail, there is some form of despotism in which power is wielded arbitrarily by a single person or party.
John Patrick, Understanding Democracy, A Hip Pocket Guide