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What Is the Rule of Law, Anyway?

In America, Civics, Economics, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Libertarianism, Philosophy, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on June 7, 2017 at 6:45 am

This piece originally appeared here in The Intercollegiate Review.

“Donald Trump Could Threaten U.S. Rule of Law, Scholars Say.” So declared an ominous headline in the New York Times roughly one year ago. MSNBC likewise ran a suggestive interview in January entitled, “Will the ‘rule of law’ survive under Trump?”

Such alarming commentary presupposes the existence of the rule of law in the United States and appears designed to portray Donald Trump as a threat to that rule. In March, however, Reason republished and retitled a curious piece that first appeared in The Week: “The Immoral ‘Rule of Law’ Behind Trump’s Deportation Regime.” The implication of this revised title (the original read, “How today’s pro-immigrant activists are adopting the tactics of abolitionists”) is that Trump is staunchly committed, rather than antagonistic, to the rule of law.

So which is it? Does Trump jeopardize or safeguard the rule of law?

The answer, if we assume the rule of law is in full force and effect in the United States, is probably situational: In some cases, Trump undermines the rule of law, while in others he reinforces it. But to know for sure, and to appreciate the difference, one must first understand what the rule of law is.

The rule of law encompasses multiple legal principles, chief among them is that the rules that govern society apply equally to all individuals within the prescribed jurisdiction. No person, not even the king or the president, is above the law. Law, not the arbitrary commands or categorical dictates of human rulers, is supreme.

Thus, the opposite of the “rule of law” is the “rule of man,” or the idea that the formal, discretionary imperatives of a powerful sovereign necessarily bind his subjects and subordinates.

The rule of law is a philosophical concept and a liberal ideal that gained ascendency during the Enlightenment (think Locke and Montesquieu) but that can be traced to antiquity (think Aristotle). The British jurist Albert Venn Dicey listed as its prime characteristics:

  1. “the absolute supremacy or predominance of regular law as opposed to the influence of arbitrary power”;
  2. “equality before the law, or the equal subjection of all classes to the ordinary law of the land administered by the ordinary Law Courts”; and
  3. “a formula for expressing the fact that with us the law of the constitution, the rules which in foreign countries naturally form part of a constitutional code, are not the source but the consequence of the rights of individuals, as defined and enforced by the Courts.”

These suggest that the rule of law is a bottom-up rather than a top-down system of governmental ordering based on already enunciated and widely accepted precepts. The operative rules that regulate the normative order of human activity in a free society under the law are rooted in custom and tradition. A ruler or judge is, in such a happy jurisdiction, responsive to the controlling principles that are antecedent to his or her political election, appointment, or empowerment.

F. A. Hayek identified the rule of law as a defining attribute of the common-law system, which, in his view, stood in contradistinction to the civil-law system that instituted vast codes and complex administrative agencies to superintend the unvigilant populace. Legislatures, of course, are accountable to the people through elections; thus, their enactments must reflect extant social practices and beliefs to satisfy voters. Administrative agencies, with their extensive rulemaking powers, are not so accountable. They are by design removed from legislative procedures and thus isolated from voters.

Hayek saw the common law as a decentralized form of social organization, and civil law as centralized planning and design. The rule of law, he thought, inhered in the former system but not in the latter. “The possession of even the most perfectly drawn-up legal code does not, of course, insure that certainty which the rule of law demands,” he warned, “and it therefore provides no substitute for a deeply rooted tradition,” which the common law embodied.

The rule of law encapsulates other seminal concepts as well: the predictability, consistency, reliability, neutrality, and clarity of working rules, for instance. These, however, are in some way derived from the principal teaching that, in Hayek’s words, “all rules apply equally to all, including those who govern.” By any appreciable standard, the United States has not lived up to this high ideal in light of the growth of sovereign immunity and qualified immunity for government officials, the disparate treatment of individuals based on their political power and connections, and, among others, the rapid rise of the administrative state.

Lately the rule of law has become associated with a law-and-order mentality that emphasizes punishment, severity, and rigidity as touchstones of the legal system. The rule of law, on this view, is the instantiation of brute force or the execution of raw power, or perhaps an ideological construct meant to condition the populace into servile submission to government authority.

This understanding of the rule of law has some merit: John Hasnas’s article “The Myth of the Rule of Law” explains how rule-of-law rhetoric indoctrinates people into casual acceptance of the harmful government monopoly on the institutions of law. He decries the gradual acquiescence of ordinary people to, in his words, “the steady erosion of their fundamental freedoms” in the name of the rule of law.

But the rule of law as an ideal, rather than a felt reality, aims to preserve rather than imperil fundamental freedoms. Perhaps there are those with ulterior motives who champion the rule of law to achieve concealed goals; perhaps government in its current form cannot actualize rule-of-law ideals. When rule-of-law discourse does serve the repressive function that Hasnas describes, it is unduly coercive and abusive. In its proper form, and as it was originally understood, however, the rule of law aspired to restrain government power.

In the minds of yesteryear patriots like Thomas Paine, the United States epitomized the rule of law. He averred that “in America the law is king,” whereas “in absolute governments the king is law.” He said, as well, that “in free countries the law ought to be king; and there ought to be no other.”

If the law is no longer king in America, it’s not because of Trump. That he enjoys immense and immeasurable power is evidence of the extent of the decline of the rule of law in this country.

Having flouted and subverted the rule of law for decades, the radical elements of the progressive left in the United States now face the inevitable consequence of their concerted activity—namely, that their coercive methods and institutions may be turned against them, and the authoritarian structures they created may service policies at odds with their own.

We can all learn a lesson from this revealing irony.

The Oft-Ignored Mr. Turton: Part One

In Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, E.M. Forster, Eastern Civilizaton, Economics, Fiction, Humane Economy, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Law-and-Literature, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Philosophy, Politics, Western Civilization on April 12, 2012 at 7:44 am

 Allen Mendenhall

The following originally appeared here at Libertarian Papers.  Full Works Cited to appear in Part Three.

There it was. Bombay. E.M. Forster, affectionately called Morgan by his friends, hurried to the railing of the ship to get a better view. The blue sparkling water stretched out before him until it met land on the horizon where buildings and bustling communities nestled among green trees. Forster had been sailing for two weeks. He was tired and dirty. The heat bothered him. It had forced him to sleep on deck where he could catch the occasional cool breeze. His friends Robert Trevelyan and Goldworthy Lowes Dickinson, or “Goldie,” were with him at the railing. The three men chirped about the welcome scene of city life. Forster breathed a sigh of relief. Here he would be liberated from the constraints of Britain. Forster achieved some celebrity after the recent publication of Howards End.  This getaway would enable him to escape the public gaze. Soon he would see his friend and sometime lover Syed Ross Masood, and also his friend Malcolm Darling, who had recently attained a favorable post in the Indian Civil Service. On this autumn day in 1912, Forster did not know that his journey would inspire his best fiction yet.

Forster made two long trips to India during which he observed district collectors, local laws, and local courtrooms at work. He spent most of his time in territories ruled by Hindu maharajahs. His experiences in India suggest that his familiarity with colonial law was greater than that of the average Englishman living in India and certainly greater than that of the average Englishman living outside India. This familiarity manifests itself in A Passage to India, published in 1924. Forster’s knowledge about district collectors in particular allowed him to use the character Mr. Turton as a site for critique. Nevertheless, Forster transmogrifies the district collector and the legal system in several passages in the novel.

In light of his knowledge of the colonial experience, including the colonial legal experience, Forster’s rejection of verisimilitude seems intentional and not the consequence of misunderstanding. Forster allows enough actual law into the novel to ensure his and his characters’ credibility, but he does not go so far as to depict the legal system as it appeared on a day-to-day basis, perhaps because the routine workings of law did not always excite. Forster gives us enough real law to make his story and characters believable, but he does not bore us with total accuracy. His hyperbolic depictions of Turton and the law invest the novel with political significance. This essay examines how Forster uses Turton to portray colonial law and rule of law discourse as dispensable flourishes of liberal ideology. It argues that Passage challenges the idea that law is universal and can be universally applied. Forster shows instead that law is entrenched in discourses of religion, race, community, and culture. To this end, he holds up Brahman Hindu as an alternative to British rule of law and to the reforming utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham. He contrasts the coercion and compulsion of rule of law to the emergent orders attendant upon Brahman Hindu. Although Forster later championed Mulk Raj Anand’s novel The Untouchable (1935), which attacked the endemic injustice of the Hindu caste system, he held out Brahman Hindu as a distinctive category of Hinduism that, in its inclusivity, rejected caste and exclusionism. His was not a referential but an idealized conception of Brahman Hindu; nevertheless, the signifier “Brahman Hindu” seems less important to the novel than the concept Forster summons forth: that of spontaneous order rather than of the centralized, artificial construct of British rule of law. This order represents a polycentric system.

The characters in Passage demonstrate that the colonial encounter is too complex for grand schemes of criminal and civil law. Unlike utilitarian jurisprudence, Brahman Hindu accounts for the complicated nexus of interrelated people and processes that shape Indian society. Utilitarianism and rule of law jurisprudence are closely related, especially in the British-Indian context, and Forster rejects these braided concepts in favor of the multiplicity of Brahman. Forster extols Brahman Hindu philosophy because it exalts the variety of human experience and, unlike the despotism resulting from Benthamite utilitarianism, embraces emotion and romanticism. For Forster, a one-size-fits-all legislative calculus simply will not do.

Rule of Law and Utilitarian Jurisprudence

Outside of Forster’s novel, there is not, to my knowledge, a jurisprudential school of Brahman Hindu. Yet Forster uses Brahman Hindu in a fictional medium to register an alternative to rule of law discourse. It is impossible to say whether Forster believed that an actual legal system predicated on Brahman Hindu would be viable or efficient. It is clear, however, that Forster uses Brahman Hindu in the novel to point out the insufficiencies and bigotry that rule of law discourse perpetuates. Forster may not have been literally advocating a Brahman legal system, but instead for any kind of system, like Brahman, that refused to universalize laws into ultra-rigid codes of behavior. He seems to have pointed out what Murray Rothbard recognized many years later: that Bentham’s “consistent philosophical utilitarianism” is bound up with “intensified statism” that opens “a broad sluice-gate for state despotism” (49).[1]

Even if there is no jurisprudential school of Brahman Hindu, the makeup of colonial courts under the rule of the East India Company included Muslim Maulavis and Hindu Pandits who advised British magistrates on legal matters. Thus, there was a definite set of procedures, rules, and laws with which Hindu law participated.[2]

The concept of rule of law has become increasingly dubious among jurisprudents. According to John Hasnas, rule of law is the belief that “law is a body of consistent, politically neutral rules that can be objectively applied by judges” (5). Figures as wide-ranging as Carl Schmitt (McCormick 205-248) and Judith N. Shklar have criticized rule of law for the ideological freight that it carries.[3] Brian Z. Tamanaha calls rule of law an “exceedingly elusive notion” (9). Hasnas suggests that the belief in rule of law goes “a long way toward explaining citizens’ acquiescence in the steady erosion of their fundamental freedoms” (5). For Hasnas, rule of law is a “powerful” and “dangerous” myth that “can command both the allegiance and respect of the citizenry” (5). Richard Posner refers to rule of law as “the central tenet and aspiration of the American legal ideology” (43), a “complex of beliefs” (45), a “body of myth” (45), and “a cornerstone of liberal polity” (45). Posner’s indictments might apply not only to the American legal landscape but also to early 20th century British advocates of rule of law such as Albert Venn Dicey (1835-1922), who published some of his most influential work while Forster published his most influential novels (Dicey died in 1922, the year Forster visited India for the second time).

Dicey is perhaps best known for popularizing rule of law. He incorporated three kindred principles in his definition of rule of law. For the purposes of this essay, the first principle—”absence of arbitrary power on the part of the government” (183)—is the most instructive. This principle implicates the awkward interface between the British and their Indian subjects in Chandrapore. It pits arbitrariness and predictability against one another. Of this principle, Dicey claims, “In this sense the rule of law is contrasted with every system of government based on the exercise by persons in authority of wide, arbitrary, or discretionary powers of constraint” (184). In other words, rule of law is stable and steady whereas legal systems instituted upon flexible and case-by-case bases are too free from external controls to function smoothly or properly. Taking into account the prominence of Dicey’s dissertations about rule of law, and also the fact that those beliefs are firmly rooted in utilitarian and positivist traditions of jurisprudence dating back to Bentham,[4] we may assume that Forster considered rule of law to be a product of, or justification for, colonial rule in India. If Forster did not think as much, he at least considered rule of law an apt starting-point from which to critique various formations of British imperialism. Put another way, rule of law provided Forster with a motif and theme that differed wildly from the motif and theme of Brahman Hindu that he wished to explore if not exalt. For Forster, either rule of law was a vehicle to glorify Brahman Hindu, or Brahman Hindu was a vehicle to disparage rule of law. Either way, rule of law appears in his novel like an archetypal prescription that he seeks to ward off and run down.

Forster undoes the privilege of Dicey’s rule of law and instead extols the arbitrariness and variety intrinsic to Brahman Hindu. Forster even has the Muslim Aziz reflect admiringly that “Hinduism, so solid from a distance, is riven into sects and clans, which radiate and join, and change their names according to the aspect from which they are approached” (265). Hinduism, although divided into subcategories, is inclusive in nature—so inclusive, in fact, that Aziz himself could be considered Brahman by way of Godbole (265). Aziz’s reflection is even more telling for its juxtaposition of the laws of Hindu states with the British legal system in Chandrapore. The problems in Hindu states were “totally different” because “here the cleavage was between Brahman and non-Brahman; Moslems and English were quite out of the running, and sometimes not mentioned for days” (265). The rulers in Hindu states are still Hindu people sharing a common culture. They are not a foreign power seeking to impose values upon an alien culture. Nevertheless, the “fissures in Indian soil are infinite” (265) such that even non-Hindus are incorporated into Hindu society. All are fused into the transcendental, absolute philosophy of Brahman. All are subject to the order—the laws—of the universe.

Whereas Dicey defends positive rules laid down by humans, Forster celebrates ordered chaos, a paradox that needs no resolution because it is the ultimate resolution. Chaos brings about order and justice; the British insistence on human-made order results in disorder and injustice. Therefore, British rule of law seems little more than a rhetorical flourish and a pretext for colonial rule, or else a grave mistake.

Forster and District Collectors in India

During the early weeks of his six-month visit to India, Forster enjoyed a country expedition, arranged by Masood, with a district collector, the local magistrate and revenue administrator. Attentive as he was, Forster must have scrutinized this collector as he scrutinized other figures he encountered (Furbank 226). Forster often recorded his observations of people and based fictional characters on those observations.[5] He even seemed at times to blur the distinction between reality and fantasy. “Forster conducted his life as if everyone lived in a novel,” submits Wendy Moffat, adding that he carefully observed every occasion and subjected “even the most clear-cut matters” to interpretation (12). This trait was not lost on those who encountered Forster in India.[6] After the publication of Passage, many of these individuals saw themselves in the various characters of the novel. Forster did not even bother concealing the identity of Mr. Godbole, a Brahman whom Foster met in Lahore (Sarker 50 and Furbank 249). Godbole appears in the novel with his name and identity intact.

During his second trip to India, roughly one decade after his first trip, Forster visited with Rupert Smith, a former assistant magistrate who had since become a district collector. Smith’s house, befitting his social station, was impressive. Smith was “rather proud” of this house, but was “later annoyed to see [it] vilified in A Passage to India” (Furbank 92).[7] It would, I think, be fair to say that Smith and the other collectors whom Forster observed in India served as models for Mr. Turton, the fictional collector in Passage. Forster’s acquaintance with collectors suggests, at any rate, that he was at least aware of collectors’ official and legal responsibilities. Forster exaggerated and ridiculed these responsibilities in the novel. His portrayals ruffled the feathers of more than a few British readers both in Britain and in India. He received, for instance, the following letter from H.H. Shipley, a gentleman recently retired from the Indian Civil Service who had read Passage with disgust:

Frankly, your Collector is impossible. There is not a Collector in India—not an English Collector—who would behave as he does. No Collector in his senses would go to the railway station to witness the arrest of a Native Asst. Surgeon. Nor would he discuss a case ‘pendente lite’ publicly at the Club. Nor (incidentally) do Collectors clap their hands at such meetings to enforce silence or attract attention. […] If a Collector behaved as Turton did he would be written down as a madman. And pardon me if I say that the idea of the members rising to their feet at Heaslop’s entrance made me roar with laughter. In our Indian Clubs a member is a member, not a God, whether he be Collector or Merchant’s Assistant.  We are not such bum-suckers as that, if you will excuse the expression. (Furbank 126–27)

Shipley’s take on Turton typifies the British outrage that Forster faced after the publication of Passage. Shipley’s perception of Turton as a real-life figure and not as a memorable or hyperbolic creation of fiction not only fails to account for narrative technique but also points to the urgency with which British readers in India sought to counter threats to existing social and legal orders.[8]

Referred to as “the Collector” by the narrator and the other characters, Turton is an aptronymic figure in that his nickname signifies not only his job but also his “collected” demeanor. He is rich in contradiction and uniquely situated vis-à-vis the law. More or less in charge of the local government, this oft-ignored figure aspires, with limited success, to neutrality—as well he might, for the job of collector called for strategic, intercultural maneuvering. We first hear of Turton by way of three prominent Indian characters—Hamidullah, Mahmoud Ali, and Dr. Aziz—who casually discuss whether Indians and Englishmen can become friends. “Why, I remember when Turton came out first,” one of the men (it is unclear which) announces, adding, “You fellows will not believe me, but I have driven with Turton in his carriage—Turton! Oh yes, we were once quite intimate. He has shown me his stamp collection.” “He would expect you to steal it now,” counters another. This dialogue indicates how India transforms the English; it is perhaps Forster’s way of indicting the system rather than certain individuals. Forster invites readers to think of Turton as a decent man spoiled by dislocation and desensitization—as a victim, in other words—and not as an instinctively villainous oppressor. This scene also reveals the hypocrisy of the imperial legal system as manifested by a glaring double-standard: Mrs. Turton’s acceptance of a sewing machine from “some Rajah or other” in exchange for running water in the Rajah’s territory (4–5). The men remark that the law would not tolerate such bribing by an Indian, thus foreshadowing the law’s double-standard as applied to Aziz. Read the rest of this entry »

The Problem with Legal Education; or, Another Piece About the Aimlessness, Pointlessness, and Groundlessness of Law School

In Arts & Letters, Humanities, Law, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Pedagogy, Teaching, Writing on July 27, 2011 at 2:23 pm

Allen Mendenhall

The latest issue of Academic Questions (Summer 2011: Vol. 24, No. 2) devotes most of its content to legal education.  Published by the National Association of Scholars, Academic Questions often features theme issues and invites scholars from across the disciplines to comment on particular concerns about the professoriate.  (Full disclosure: I am a member of the NAS.)  Carol Iannone, editor at large, titles her introduction to the issue “Law School and Other Tyrannies,” and writes that “[w]hat is happening in the law schools has everything to do with the damage and depredation that we see in the legal system at large.”  She adds that the contributors to this issue “may not agree on all particulars, but they tell us that all is not well, that law school education is outrageously expensive, heavily politicized, and utterly saturated with ‘diversity’ mania.”  What’s more, Iannone submits, law school “fails to provide any grounding in sound legal doctrine, or any moral or ethical basis from which to understand principles of law in debate today.”  These are strong words.  But are they accurate?  I would say yes and no.

Law school education is too expensive, but its costs seem to have risen alongside the costs of university education in general.  Whether any university or postgraduate education should cost what it costs today is another matter altogether.

There is little doubt that law schools are “heavily politicized,” as even a cursory glance at the articles in “specialized” law journals would suggest.  These journals address anything from gender and race to transnational law and human rights.

But how can law be taught without politicizing?  Unlike literature, which does not always immediately implicate politics, law bears a direct relation to politics, or at least to political choices.  The problem is not the political topics of legal scholarship and pedagogy so much as it is the lack of sophistication with which these topics are addressed.  The problem is that many law professors lack a broad historical perspective and are unable to contextualize their interests within the wider university curriculum or against the subtle trends of intellectual history.

In law journals devoted to gender and feminism, or law journals considered left-wing, you will rarely find articles written by individuals with the intelligence or learning of Judith Butler, Camille Paglia, or Eve Sedgwick.  Say what you will about them, these figures are well-read and historically informed.  Their writings and theories go far beyond infantile movement politics and everyday partisan advocacy.    Read the rest of this entry »

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