rule of law

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the principle that all people and institutions are subject to and accountable to law that is fairly applied and enforced; the principle of government by law.
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Origin of rule of law

First recorded in 1500–10
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2023


What is the rule of law?

The rule of law refers to the idea that everyone in a society agrees to be governed by and follow the laws of a society.

Why is the rule of law important in a democracy?

The idea of rule of law goes all the way back to ancient Greece, and to the work of the philosopher Aristotle. Aristotle’s Politics explores the best method to rule a society. He asks: “Is a good leader more important, or are good laws more important?” His answer? The best way to rule a society is through very good laws. But for laws to work justly, they have to apply to everyone equally.

The idea of rule of law is that once the laws are made, everyone should follow them, both the citizens of the country and the government of the country. Powerful people shouldn’t get a pass just because they have a lot of money or social status. And government officials shouldn’t be able to be above the law just because they created the laws.

This is quite important because it means that the government can’t do whatever it wants. It has to follow the rules that have been set. If the absolute law of the nation says “all leaders have to be elected,” the current leader cannot legally declare that their own child will inherit the leadership when they die. Nepotism is a big no-no in this rule of law.

The rule of law, therefore, makes sure governments and people act in accordance with the laws. Governments that operate under the rule of law are different than, for example, the absolute monarchies that ruled over medieval Europe, where the king or queen were not always subject to the laws of the land. That’s why an event like King John’s signing of the Magna Carta in 1215 was a big deal (even though it was signed under duress and soon taken back—that’s a story for a different day). It was a big deal because the Magna Carta was a document that, among other things, bound the king to obey the rules too.

In the United States, the Constitution is an important part of the rule of law, because the Constitution is considered the fundamental law of the nation. So if there’s a conflict between the principles of the Constitution and rules that exist apart from the Constitution, the United States Courts are supposed to uphold the Constitution above all other rules. The rule of law in the United States is in a large part determined by what the Constitution says. (Of course, there’s the additional complication of how we should interpret the Constitution, since it’s relatively brief.)

What are real-life examples of the rule of law?

Rule of law is a phrase that comes up a lot in politics. There’s a good chance it’s been seen on the news or on social media recently to describe some current events.

There are currently a lot of debates going on about who is and who isn’t sticking to rule of law … in the United States and elsewhere. The use of the phrase tends to be extremely loaded. The implication of not abiding by rule of law is that there are significant violations of the social order going on, ones that are so dramatic that they threaten the very foundations of society.

A phrase that comes up a lot is ignoring the rule of law. This implies that someone is acting as if they think the law doesn’t apply to them.

Or you might see the phrase undermining the rule of law. This means that someone is acting in a way that has the potential to destroy the general agreement that everyone in society will follow the same rules.

Another popular one: uphold the rule of law. This means someone or something is following the laws and applying them to all people equally, even the powerful.