Rule of Law for a Free Society

By: Abel Merawi

rule-of-lawMarch 12, 2020 ( -- When Plato wrote ‘The Republic’, he was determined to have a leader that was intellectually and morally refined, which translates into justice for the ruled. He thought philosophy would make such a leader and claimed, “Philosophers must become kings or those now called kings must genuinely and adequately philosophize.” Plato learned his error in 353 BC while working under Dionysius I of Syracuse, who learned philosophy but still became an oppressor. He discovered that intellect could not match the tyranny that comes with power. Thus, in the Seventh Letter of Plato known as Epistle VII, he argued that no person can have such power and trusted to be good. The only solution is to have the rule of law as a standard for every person to follow.

In modern times, the concept of democracy is attached only to the election or majority rule that the other principles of democracy are forgotten. The discussion of democracy in Ethiopia is dominated by such a mentality. Most political parties have devoted their attention to winning the favor of the majority through ethnic politics and they make a promise to a group by disregarding the nation. Most people are also interested in what a certain party will do exclusively to their ethnic group. The same is true of other democratic countries with politicians promising a better life to the group they consider a majority. This misconception of democracy results from neglecting the rule of law. Undoubtedly, election is the preliminary condition for democracy, but what the elected does when holding office is the essential criterion of democracy. The rule of law is a vast concept to cover, but I will attempt to shed some light on the fundamental components.

After holding office through a democratic election, the government should not assume that it has unlimited power to act as it wishes. In other words, it should not have the privilege of making new laws that contradict or destroy the order of society. A democratic and free society is not to be subject to any form of coercion by the government, otherwise it leads to totalitarianism. It should be remembered that society has gained its present form through the process it went through for generations, while the government is there to guarantee the social order – and not create a new society. F.A. Hayek in his work ‘Law, Legislation and Liberty’ argues that “only the observance of common rules makes the peaceful existence of individuals in society possible.” What is meant by ‘common rules’ is abstract or general rules that are respected commonly by everyone. In other words, the general rules the government is elected to enforce should not be changed in favor of a majority or a minority using the pretext of social justice.

Rule of law is mostly violated due to the very process in which the majority elects the government. When politicians strive to win a majority, they neglect the rights of minorities. Consequently, their time in office is characterized by a constant struggle to make their voters happy. In a democracy, the rights of individuals are never to be sacrificed for the benefit of others – even the majority. For instance, the government may play the card of social justice by claiming a certain group is treated unjustly and gives extra incentive to it by taking it from others. As F.A. Hayek states, “a society will achieve a coherent and self-consistent overall order only if it submits to general rules in its particular decisions, and does not permit even the majority to break these rules unless this majority is prepared to commit itself to a new rule which it undertakes henceforth to apply without exception.” Thus, the law is truly guaranteed when legislations are applicable to every group and citizen of the country without partiality.

At other times, the democratically elected government becomes undemocratic by trying to make every citizen work for a national goal set by the government. The basic error in socialism and communism is not favoritism for a special group per se, but the setting up of a national goal. When the socialist Derg Regime tried to redistribute wealth and made laws that require every citizen to act in a prescribed manner economically, socially and politically, it was violating the rule of law. One manifestation of freedom is pursuing individual dreams by respecting the rule of conduct set for all. Society is expected to agree on the means of achieving a goal but not the actual goal. Innovation and economic growth of a nation are realized when individuals are free to create and produce what they desire. For instance, the Ethiopian curriculum enrolls 70% of students in natural science fields and 30% to social science by claiming a national goal. This violates the freedom of students since their future is decided by a collective demand, in direct violation of liberty. F. A. Hayek rightly stated, “In the ordinary sense of purpose law is therefore not a means to any purpose, but merely a condition for the successful pursuit of most purposes.” Thus, the purpose of the law is not to force people in their goals, but to let them pursue their own goals as long as they respect the laws in doing so.

In order to maintain a free society, the law is expected to set general rules of conduct instead of results. This is the distinction between positive laws that determine the goal and negative laws that determine the manner in which individuals attain their goals. F. A. Hayek draws an analogy with a game and states, “And while, as in a game, we are right in insisting that it be fair and that nobody cheat, it would be nonsensical to demand that the results for the different players be just.” For instance, in football matches, we do not argue that it is unjust for a team to win all the time and other teams should be allowed to win. We can only complain if it won by cheating or through favor from the referee. Accordingly, the rule of law is enforced on every citizen so that they play fairly; it is not by favoring a group because it didn’t win previously. The individual is to achieve personal goals through one’s effort rather than government incentive.

When a group or an individual is given unlimited power, it leads to tyranny. Election is the initial stage, but if the elected is to reign without check, the free society falls under oppression. Furthermore, if the majority has the right to make laws, then slavery would be right because whites were a majority. Yet, the rule of law requires both the majority and the minority to obey the law. The politician’s fear of losing an election has made democracy a campaign for winning votes by any means. F.A. Hayek argues, “A system which may place any small group in the position to hold society to ransom if it happens to be the balance between opposing groups, and can extort special privileges for its support of a party, has little to do with democracy or 'social justice'.” A free society requires free individuals, and such liberty is guaranteed through the rule of law.  


Abel Merawi is Addis Ababa-based contributor for He can be reached through this form.

Other articles by Abel Merawi:


The Origins of Law

Determinants of Market Value: Part II

Determinants of Market Value: Part I

Your life Matters Too

Manifestations of Artistic Expression

Achievements vs Natural Accidents

The Grip of Sacrifice

Injustice is Never Justifiable

Education Demands of the Future

Job Security, Life and the Unpredictable Future

The Shift From Racism to Culturism

Sacrificing Meaning for Power?

Culture and Market Forces

Intersubjective Reality

Seeking Cosmic Justice

National Myths: Makers and Destroyers of Nations

Are We Truly Free?

Maturity: The Prerequisite to Freedom and Democracy

Loyalty to Truth, Not to Group

The Value of Work

The Flaws with Ethiopian Political System

Intellectuals and the People

Where Are Our Pathfinders?

The Allegory of the Cave and Its Lessons to Leaders

The Truth Behind Humanity

The Seven Virtues

The Seven Deadly Sins

What is the right thing to do?

Building National Identity

Adey Abeba and the Spirit of Change

Mob Violence

Living the Truth as a Human Being

Hubris - The Tragedy of Not Learning from Others

The Era of Group Mentality: Us vs Them

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