Trial, Error, and the Rule of Law


Ah, democracy. Americans like to extol its virtues, but often forget the dangers. It turns out that the major problem with rule by the people is, well, rule by the people. It was a problem the Founding Fathers were well aware of and the primary reason why they rarely used the term, unless it was in a negative sense. And while our Founders were fascinated with Roman history to learn about the strengths and weaknesses of republican government (meaning government run by representatives), they took a similar interest in Greek history to learn about the foibles of democracy.

Greek history is full of tales of democracy gone bad. My favorite story involves Socrates, but it’s probably not the one you know.

During the Peloponnesian War, the Athenians were able to beat the militaristic Spartans in a great sea battle off the coast of Arginusae. Though outgunned and outmanned, the Athenians used unconventional tactics and raw nerve to best the Spartans. When the Athenians returned home, the generals were celebrated as heroes who had taught the Spartans not to mess with Athens on the open seas. But when word got of that a number of Athenian sailors had been knocked overboard and left to drown during the frantic battle and rough seas, the hero generals were quickly tried, convicted, and executed. The verdict was almost unanimous. Only one Athenian on the jury voted to acquit the generals: Socrates. The Athenians would remember his dissent when they later brought him to trial and executed him.

The moral of this story and myriads of others is that putting “the people” in charge comes at a price. The people are moody, fickle, and driven by passion. These are, after all, the same people who will trample you to death at Christmas to get the last Tickle-Me-Elmo for their kids. The passion of the “mob” isn’t just the flaw of ancient democracies. You see it in modern democracies as well.  Sometimes people dislike the outcome of the political process, the results of an election, or the verdict of a jury trial.  The people demand that the process itself – which was designed to be fair and impartial – be set aside in order to achieve “real justice.” The danger here is that if the rule of law is dismissed to appease the passions of the people, then the very premise of constitutional government is gone.

The power of the government can be a dangerous thing when it’s used for coercion and vendetta by the masses.  Our political system was designed to prevent this sort of abuse by implementing a serious of competing obligations, cross-pressures, and co-mingled powers delegated to various branches. Our emphasis on the rule of law rather than majority rule is what makes us a constitutional republic and not a democracy.  Our system is not perfect. It sometimes fails, and it sometimes does so in big ways.  But if we sacrifice the rule of law for a cup of hemlock, the executioner’s ax, or the hangman’s noose,  we lose far more than we gain.

2 responses

  1. This is so true. When the public is dissatisfied with services or policies and judge government, “we” scarcely remember how difficult it is to be “in charge’ and be the bad guy taking those tough decisions. The public is quite fickle as well; very quick to judge but slow to forgive. Although when the public likes you, it likes you

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