Lineages of the Rule of Law
This chapter elaborates a highly stylized and simplified account of the emergence of two features of the rule of law as commonly understood: predictability and equality. Legal historians would stress the role of economic, demographic, technological, scientific, religious, and cultural factors in bringing about and stabilizing institutional innovations as startlingly novel as legal certainty and equality before the law. When describing the role of important social actors in promoting or inhibiting such developments, they would weave into their story a variety of factors, including ideology, irrational passions, improvisation within inherited institutions, and the unexpected consequences of habitual behavior in a changed setting. My objective, in what follows, is both more modest and more theoretical.
I aim to clarify the reasons why powerful political actors might furiously resist or warmly embrace the rule of law. We cannot explain why the rule of law does or does not emerge in a specific historical context by invoking nothing but the strategic calculations of powerful political actors. But the self-interested reasons why powerful members of a society might encourage or discourage such a development are undoubtedly relevant and deserve a focused treatment.
I ask, first, why governments, with the means of repression in their hands, might be induced to make their own behavior predictable. For help in answering this question, I turn to Machiavelli. His thesis, essentially, is that governments are driven to make their own behavior predictable for the sake of cooperation. Governments tend to behave as if they were “bound” by law, rather than using law unpredictably as a stick to discipline subject populations, less because they fear rebellion than because they have specific goals (such as fending off attempts by foreign invaders to seize their territory) that require a high degree of voluntary cooperation from specific social groups possessing specific