The government shutdown and debate over the debt limit has ended — at least for now — with a rather anticlimactic denouement. A majority of Congressional representatives recognized that approving legislation was the only way to avert an economic and political crisis. So last night, they took a vote.
What is extraordinary, from a global and historical perspective, is that not only Congress but also the other branches of government, as well as a plurality of citizens, recognized that was the only legitimate option. No other extralegal option was even proffered. Sure, a few political pundits might have argued that the president should act unilaterally and ignore Congress. But hardly anyone took such proposals seriously, much less believed they would happen. Almost no one, in other words, was willing to overthrow America’s King – the rule of law.
For most of human history, the will of the ruler or ruling class was absolute. The concept of Rex Lex — the king is law – went largely unchallenged. In the 1600s, though, a new idea Lex Rex — the law is king – began to take hold. In 1644, this reversal of tradition gained traction when the Scottish Presbyterian minister Samuel Rutherford published Lex, Rex, a defense of the rule of law against royal absolutism. The idea spread, and within a hundred years, America would become the greatest example of what happens when the “law is king.”
Today, we take the concept, so it’s useful to define what it means. As the World Justice Project explains, the rule of law is a system in which the following four universal principles are upheld: