What Is the Purpose of Law
In the U.S., there are a wide variety of laws, including laws created by legislatures, those created by administrative agencies, and laws created from tradition, or common law. Then there is a court system to help decide which laws apply in each situation and how the laws should be interpreted. It seems like a lot of rules, but all of them are important to help protect us in our day-to-day lives.
The establishment of a system of laws was not invented by the founding fathers of the United States. The idea of written laws goes back to ancient Mesopotamian culture that prospered long before the Bible was written or the civilizations of the Greeks or Romans flowered. In fact, the oldest known evidence of a law code is tablets from the ancient city Ebla (Tell Mardikh in modern-day Syria). They date to about 2400 BCE. However, most scholars credit Hammurabi’s Code as the origin of written laws and a formal legal system. If you haven’t heard of Hammurabi, you have certainly heard one of his laws: “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” Hammurabi’s Code, a collection of 282 laws inscribed on an upright stone pillar, contains many fundamental legal concepts we would recognize in today’s legal system. In fact, Hammurabi’s reasoning for creating this code is not that far removed from the rationale for our current legal system. In his preface, Hammurabi writes that he sets forth these laws “to bring about the rule of righteousness in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil-doers; so that the strong should not harm the weak.” Rule of law implies that every citizen is subject to the law, including lawmakers themselves. In this sense, the rule of law stands in contrast to an autocracy, dictatorship, or oligarchy, in which the rulers are held above the law. Lack of the rule of law can be found in both democracies and dictatorships, because of neglect or ignorance of the law, for example, and the rule of law is more apt to deteriorate if a government has insufficient corrective mechanisms for restoring it. If you’ve ever read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (or seen the movie), and you can recall the Queen of Hearts yelling, “Off with their heads!” at the slightest infraction or offense, you have some idea of what it would be like to live in a society that is not governed by the rule of law.
In a word, the rule of law is further weakened when legislative and judicial power is delegated to unelected government bureaucrats. Starting in the 1930s, Congress began passing general laws, leaving the details up to administrative agencies. These agencies enforce and interpret their own rules and regulations which, although they have the force of law, have not been ratified by the Constitutional lawmaking authority.