Rules for Thee but Not for Me….

The two-year-olds who currently dominate America’s political landscape may be riding different hobby-horses, but the common thread that runs through their various tantrums is an assault on the rule of law.

The essential difference between regimes based upon raw power and those based on the rule of law is that in the latter, the same rules apply to everyone. No one, we like to say, is “above the law.” In democratic rule-of-law regimes, partisans may contend bitterly over the wisdom or efficacy of any particular rule, but once it is enacted, like it or not, they abide by the law unless and until it is repealed or overruled.

Adherence to the rule of law is an essential condition of government legitimacy–a point that is seemingly lost on the various county clerks refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, or police officers who believe their commands are the law, to use just a couple of contemporary examples.

Closer to home,  Indiana Gov. Mike Pence says he will refuse to implement the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan. In a letter to President Obama, he wrote that he would not abide by the plan “if the final rule has not demonstrably and significantly improved.”

“Improved” evidently meaning “acceptable to Mike Pence.”

If Pence and others who object to the EPA’s rule truly believe it represents a wrongful exercise of the agency’s authority, they can litigate that issue. If they win, good for them. If they lose, they have to abide by the law.

In a country with the rule of law, none of us gets to decide for ourselves which laws we will obey.


  1. I completely agree with everything you say up until they final sentence. “In a country with the rule of law, none of us gets to decide for ourselves which laws we will obey.” Actually, we do all get to decide this for ourselves…you need to add “without impunity” to the end of it or summarize it differently. A country with the rule of law cannot stand if its citizens are allowed to decide for themselves, without impunity, which laws they are or are not going to follow. Hmm…Not much better.

  2. I have alway found that most people with strong fundamentalist religious beliefs are also control freaks. Pence seems to be one of them.

  3. Pence needs to keep his credentials stamped by his followers, who see the Federal Government as an enemy. Especially, the Gevermint that made same sex marriage the law of the land, or the EPA that may try to repair all the environmental damage that has been done. Pence is such an empty suit.

  4. Ray, I would agree with your statement- I have always found that most people with strong fundamentalist religious beliefs are also control freaks. Taking orders from the Hierarchy is of utmost importance and simple explanations: God works in mysterious ways. The Genesis Myth is easier to teach than Evolution. Accepting Evolution requires curiosity into the Scientific Methods.

    By the way do Religious Fundamentalists Recycle, or will God take care of it???

  5. Re Xn fundamentalists, you might consult Kathy Hayhoe, and Evangelical Ecumenical Network. But Pence is perhaps to their right on the spectrum.

  6. Why does the GOP so love dirty water and dirty air and dirty food? Are they just that stupid? or does the big money that pays their bills (Koch etc) overrule their thought process? Amazing.

  7. If I am an oligarch, and own a business in Indiana, in which I pay my employees dirt, it makes no difference if the air is dirty, or the water is polluted. I just don’t live in Indiana. Problem solved.

  8. To empathize with current conservatives for a moment – they really believe that the world is better off with them in charge. And they’ve found an environment, artificial to be sure, that envelopes them in positive feedback. Tells them that they are right. And that they are successfully in charge. Like the mythical Muslim nirvana of free virgins for all men, though a nightmare for normal men, it’s a dream come true for them. And, no waiting. It’s on earth now.

    Now, begging your indulgence, a TED video, that is completely relevant to this point.

    Human culture is powered by our belief in stories. It is our beliefs that creates reality for us. Not vice versa.

    So fundamentally, conservatives tell and believe the story that they are and should be of superior rank in a structured society and they see all around them evidence that they are. In fact though others have created their sanctuary and they are trapped by their story to within its walls.

    The rest of us are the same but believe different stories. Our story is of a network of diverse people living free and open lives through cooperation. Connection not competition. Sheila’s rule of law not people.

    If one wishes to define a here and now for our species it would have to be what story is most prevalent?

    One interesting sidepoint in that question is that American conservatives share the same story as Muslim fundamentalists as an example. The difference is who should be in charge not whether. Competition not connection.

  9. In the middle part of the 20th century US presidents had to send federal troops and other agents to enforce the law. I suspect the next president may have to do the same.

  10. Wayne – I’m interested in your point about Kathy Hayhoe who I’ve always regarded as a competent sciençe communicator first and foremost. Does she have another side that I don’t know of?

  11. “In a country with the rule of law, none of us gets to decide for ourselves which laws we will obey.”

    If only we had such a country.

    America is currently a polyarchy, where multiple bodies are the law. Congress can pass laws. The President issues executive orders. The Supreme Court creates new laws out of thin air. Regulatory agencies promulgate regulations or simply issue their own guidelines. National and local police are a law unto themselves where they make up the law as they go along. Subordinate bodies like cities and towns do as they want with no regard to actions contrary to state law. Even private companies such as the NCAA can impose the force of law and impose financial and other penalties on actual governments.

    With such competition for power among a variety of sources, how can anyone credibly argue that states have no authority to add their voice or exert their will in the fight? After all, under the Constitution, may it rest in peace, the states were the primary source of government.

    Our government is a mess. We do not have a single “Rule of Law,” but “Rules of Law,” with each source of power claiming ultimate authority for its pronouncements. Frequently the Rules conflict, and multiple masters cause people to see the entire range of dictators as petty and illegitimate.

    Someone has to stop the competition and settle the matter. As states are preeminent, and as a state far outranks an agency, a state Governor cannot be faulted for stopping arrogant overreach of a minor governmental office.

    America is overdue for another constitutional convention to settle the question of where power properly resides.

    As ultimate governmental authority rests with me, I have no quarrel if everyone ignores such self-indulgent fantasies as the “U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan.” What egotistical kook thinks he’s fit to draft such a thing that anyone would consider himself bound to follow?

  12. “In a country with the rule of law, none of us gets to decide for ourselves which laws we will obey.”

    P.S. That argument doesn’t follow. If a country’s rule of law is that each person decides for himself what is law, then the Rule of Law can happily coexist with individual legal choice.

    You’ve failed to consider all forms of government. I wonder why?

  13. While I agree that ignoring the law is a problem (and the clerks refusing to issue marriage licenses is perhaps a good example), I find it strange to write an article on the topic and ignore Obama’s treatment of the immigration laws. It is also strange to note the clerks example without noting that the Supreme Court justices “wrote” the law requiring the clerks to do so out of thin air. I am fine with gay marriage, but the Justices act more like Iranian Mullahs than interpreters of the Constitution. Perhaps if the Supreme Court conducted their role with fidelity to something other than their morals the clerks would do so as well.

Comments are closed.