Friday, April 06, 2012

Rule of Law, Soviet style

"Your papers, please."

What does "rule of law" mean? ... a pertinent question in light of the SCOTUS decision in Florence.

Today (4 April) on NPR's "Morning Edition" there's an interesting interview with South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley. The entire interview is worth hearing (early on she discusses the bigotry she still faces from some conservatives and speaks eloquently about judging individuals on their personal merits), but especially appropriate is the discussion of immigration beginning around 7:00. Governor Haley observes that "we are a country of laws" and that it is absolutely necessary that we follow the rules or we "lose everything."

Asked about what happens when the laws result in innocent people being targeted by police because the police don't like the way they look, Haley responds "I have faith in our law enforcement." Incredulous, Inskeep points out the case of a foreign businessman, legally visiting America, who was arrested because he couldn't immediately prove to the police that he wasn't an illegal alien. Haley's response?

"You do have to carry identification that shows you're legal. You do have to do that."

Боже мой! This was Soviet law -- everyone carries mandatory ID and is subject to arrest without it. But she's right, the burden of proof is on us -- we're assumed "illegal" unless we can show otherwise, we "do have to do that." SCOTUS already ruled a few years ago that police could demand an ID and arrest someone if they refused to provide it. And now, thanks to the conservative justices' opinions in Florence, we're also subject to strip searches...all for not carrying ID that satisfies the police. Yes, "faith in our law enforcement," there's the "rule of law" for you.

Conservatives (correctly) warn us of the dangers of soft despotism, creeping tyranny, and the slow slide to a total state, but their protests are utterly incredible... they are helping lead the way in building tyrannical laws.

The conservative position expounded by Haley confuses "laws" and "law enforcement" with the rule of law. She's simply endorsing obedience to whatever regulations the state happens to pass; her "rule of law" is perfectly compatible with Soviet laws, sharia laws of Taliban, or any other codified regulations imposed by authorities.
But the original meaning of "rule of law" was a (classical) liberal concept: the Law is the natural law of individual rights, as expounded by John Locke, Frederic Bastiat, and the like -- and the state is to be constrained by it. That's why it was "the rule of law, not the rule of men."

Conservatives like Haley seem to think that whatever rules they pass must be obeyed, and that's the rule of law. They are wrong; that's the rule of men, and it's tyranny. And with Florence, SCOTUS leaves unrestricted a state power to harass, intimidate, and abuse citizens, even those not even charged with a crime.

Photo: A Soviet internal passport.

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