Democracy and the Rule of Law

By José María Maravall; Adam Przeworski | Go to book overview
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Chapter Two
Power, Rules, and Compliance

General Pinochet warned in October 1989, a few weeks before Chile's first democratic elections after the 1988 referendum, that “if someone touches one of my men, the rule of law is over” (si me tocan a uno de mis hombres, se acabó el Estado de Derecho). There seems to be something profoundly paradoxical about the general's subtle warning. It implies that the existence of the rule of law depends on the will of a single person, but part of the meaning of the rule of law is precisely that the institutional order is something other than the product of a single will.

This is usually misunderstood by those who discuss the rule of law. They often affirm that the point is to institute “a government of laws, not of men.” Yet this statement is at best ambiguous. A government cannot consist of laws. A government of laws can only mean that the rulers are bound by what the law establishes, that is, that a government of men complies with the laws. The underlying confusion is also apparent in other, equally misleading phrases that people link to the rule of law, such as “the sovereignty of the law” or “the supremacy of the law.” All this is empty rhetoric. The law, being a human creation, must necessarily be subject to human will. In fact, the very term “the rule of law” is in itself rhetorical.1 The law cannot rule. Ruling is an activity, and laws cannot act.

What all these metaphorical expressions have in common is the assumption that the law somehow stands above men. Because Pinochet,

1 In other languages the term used for the rule of law (e.g., Rechtsstaat, Estado de Derecho)
is free of these metaphysical implications. I am going to consider that, with respect to the
argument I defend in this chapter, there are no significant differences between the doc-
trine of the rule of the law as it has developed in the Anglo-Saxon world and continental

I thank Adam Przeworski for his very valuable comments.


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