When was the last time you pondered the concept of the rule of law?
I never thought about it much, either — until Friday. That's when I joined 130 other Kentuckians from the fields of law, business, education and government who participated in the Rule of Law Symposium in Frankfort.
The Kentucky Bar Association organized the day-long program because its leaders thought the concept needed to be better understood.
"The rule of law is not for lawyers," said Charles Ricketts, a Louisville attorney who helped organize the symposium. "It's for all of us."
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What is the rule of law? To colonial pamphleteer Thomas Paine, it was the idea that the law should be king, rather than the king be the law. John Adams saw it as "a government of laws and not men." Abraham Lincoln explained it as government "of the people, by the people and for the people."
It doesn't just mean that people should obey the law. It also means that the law should obey the people's right to fairness and justice.
Kentucky State University President Mary Evans Sias, who hosted the symposium, underscored that point by explaining why she had never learned to swim. When she was growing up in Mississippi, local officials responded to challenges of the state's segregation laws by filling public swimming pools with concrete rather than allowing black and white children to swim together.
The concept of the rule of law, which emerged during The Enlightenment of the 1700s, was a founding principle of the United States. In recent years, it has been actively promoted abroad to spread economic prosperity, protect the interests of multinational corporations and secure human rights.
"We are becoming a small, global neighborhood," said the keynote speaker, Elizabeth Andersen, executive director of the American Society of International Law in Washington, D.C. Spreading the rule of law worldwide is increasingly important, she said, because geography no longer insulates Americans from terrorism in Afghanistan or toxic manufacturing in China.
Both at home and abroad, the rule of law can be easier to describe than to create, because there are often conflicting interests, values and interpretations. For example, judges are supposed to be fair and impartial, not bend to public opinion or special interests. Do elections and campaign contributions undermine that goal, or does electing judges make them more accountable to the public?
Such conflicts quickly became apparent in six small-group discussions on specific topics, each led by a justice of the Kentucky Supreme Court. I sat in on two sessions: One was about business, labor and the workplace; the other about civil rights and social justice.
Jim Chen, dean of the University of Louisville law school, said digital technology has made it easier for citizens to hold their leaders accountable as they make and enforce laws. But Heather Mahoney of the citizens' group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth said the rule of law is often compromised because wealthy corporations and individuals have more influence over lawmakers and regulators than other citizens do.
Bill Londrigan of the Kentucky AFL-CIO said labor laws in the 1930s helped create a balance of power between workers and management, all but eliminating the violent strikes and riots of earlier decades. But he complained that since 1980, labor law enforcement has favored management, leading to the decline of unions and the American middle class they helped create.
He said it's vital that the rule of law not only restore workers' rights in this country, but protect workers abroad from exploitation. Otherwise, we will have a "race to the bottom" that will lower all workers' standard of living.
"The rule of law is absolutely essential for us to have a global economy that benefits workers and not just the owners of the capital," Londrigan said.
Not surprisingly, Mike Ridenour of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce had a different point of view. Businesses must make a profit, and consumers want the highest quality at the lowest price.
"So we're caught with a values conflict even within ourselves," he said. "All things have a price. We don't always want to pay the price."
Merl Hackbart of the University of Kentucky School of Management said cultural differences are a major challenge to expanding the rule of law globally. Laws are effective only when a culture values them, he noted, which explains why Prohibition in the 1920s was a miserable failure.
Ron Crouch, a sociologist who heads the Kentucky State Data Center at the University of Louisville, said the rule of law is essential to keeping the marketplace free and fair.
Crouch blamed much of the current economic mess on government deregulation.
"We used to hire police to keep people from robbing banks," he said. "Now we need to hire police to keep banks from robbing people."
The biggest threat to the rule of law is corruption, said Andersen of the American Society of International Law. And you don't have to go to Third World countries to find it; it's often as close as your county courthouse.
The way to fight corruption, Andersen said, is for citizens to become more involved in how laws are made and enforced. It's the only way to make the rule of law a reality and not just an ideal — and to create culture of responsibility, accountability and justice.