Why the Rule of Law Doesn’t Work Perfectly

Law is the set of rules that governs human interactions, from interpersonal conflicts to national controversies. It includes the legal system of justice (judges and courts) as well as the various branches of government that make up a nation-state’s governing structure. It also refers to the professions that help people understand and navigate the complexities of the law: lawyers, judges, and officials.

People value the Rule of Law for many reasons, but mostly it takes the sting out of being ruled by another person or group. This is because law, when it works properly, establishes what Fuller (1964) called a bond of constraint between the ruler and the ruled. This enables the ruled to predict how their actions will be responded to, and thus mitigates the asymmetry that political power otherwise involves.

But law does not work perfectly, of course. There are many different reasons why a legal system may fail to fulfill its fundamental purposes:

First, it is hard for any human being to fully understand the complex interactions of multiple laws that may come into play at any given time. The legal system is so large and complicated that any attempt to make sense of it must take into account an infinite number of variables, including the unforeseeable consequences of other people’s actions. This makes interpreting and applying law in real-life situations difficult, even for trained professionals.

Second, there is no easy way to test the correctness of laws. There are few, if any, scientific methods of checking the veracity of authoritative statements, whether comprised in judicial opinions or scholarly literature. This is because the law is an interdisciplinary field that encompasses fields such as philosophy, history, economic analysis and sociology. This lack of methodological integrity is one reason why it is so important to continually question and challenge legal assumptions.

Third, people have a variety of philosophies and values concerning what is right and wrong, and how to apply the law. These beliefs inform the judicial process and contribute to the emergence of new laws over time.

A law is anything that must be obeyed, either by the force of a government or by the force of social norms. It can be a moral law, such as a prohibition against murder, or a natural law, such as the principle of self-preservation. It can also be an official law, such as a statute passed by a legislature, or it can be an unwritten rule that must be followed, like the rules of engagement in combat. Even a simple act, such as drinking water, can be described as a law if it must be obeyed: Alice was under the law to drink the water before Bob arrived. Then there are the laws that govern our careers and personal lives: labor law, the rights of immigrants, immigration and nationality law, civil rights law and family law, to name a few. These broad categories are used for convenience only because the subjects intertwine and overlap.