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The phrase “the Rule of Law” has to be distinguished from the phrase “a rule of law”.
Groups like the World Justice Project concoct criteria and indexes of the Rule of Law, ranking the nations of the earth in this regard.
Countries like Norway and New Zealand rank at the top of the Rule-of-Law league and countries like Zimbabwe and Afghanistan at the bottom (see Other Internet Resources).
They confine the focus of the Rule of Law to formal and procedural aspects of governmental institutions, without regard to the content of the policies they implement. As we shall see, some substantive accounts have been developed, which amount in effect to the integration of the Rule of Law with some of these other ideals.
The most important demand of the Rule of Law is that people in positions of authority should exercise their power within a constraining framework of well-established public norms rather than in an arbitrary, , or purely discretionary manner on the basis of their own preferences or ideology.
Legal philosophers tend to emphasize formal elements of the Rule of Law such as rule by general norms (rather than particular decrees); rule by norms laid down in advance (rather than by retrospective enactments); rule by norms that are made public (not hidden away in the closets of the administration); and rule by clear and determinate legal norms (norms whose meaning is not so vague or contestable as to leave those who are subject to them at the mercy of official discretion).
But these are not necessarily what ordinary people have in mind when they call for the Rule of Law; they often have in mind the absence of corruption, the independence of the judiciary, and a presumption in favor of liberty.
Also, the law should be the same for everyone, so that no one is above the law, and everyone has access to the law’s protection.
The requirement of access is particularly important, in two senses.
It insists that the government should operate within a framework of law in everything it does, and that it should be accountable through law when there is a suggestion of unauthorized action by those in power. It requires also that citizens should respect and comply with legal norms, even when they disagree with them.
When their interests conflict with others’ they should accept legal determinations of what their rights and duties are.