In these United States, that phrase “the rule of law” is often taken to be a piety in the civics books; the notion of being a law-governed polity rarely stirs the American soul. Our society is “normal,” and a “normal” society is governed by law. So what’s the big deal?
The big deal, of course, is that the alternatives to the rule of law are the non-rule of anarchy or the brutalitarian rule of sheer coercion. Communist states were prime examples of the latter: rule by a small power-elite with neither scruples about nor obstacles to its willful (and, often, lethal) deployment of coercive power. Yes, communist states had laws by the truckload, and the appurtenances of the rule of law—legislatures, statute books, courts, attorneys, and the like—were maintained. But it all meant virtually nothing, as the ubiquitous power of the secret police in those societies made plain. The facade of the rule of law masked the essential lawlessness of communist states: and lawlessness means that the politically powerless are at the mercy of the powerful.
Although the rule of law has by no means been fully established in east central Europe, great progress has been made. The power of the secret police has been broken, and those charged with enforcing public order are now, in the main, publicly accountable for their actions. Real legislatures, composed of real legislators chosen by real voters to enact real laws, are now the norm. Elections take place regularly and seem to be conducted fairly. Power changes hands, and then changes back again, without the presence of tanks in the streets. That this has been accomplished in five years—that, even in countries where former communists have returned to power through the ballot box, virtually no one worries seriously about a return to authoritarianism (much less totalitarianism)—seems little short of miraculous.
So the good news is that the bad news so regularly reported by the Western press is not all the news there is. But there is some bad news, or at least disturbing news, and revisiting it briefly can help us both to understand the immediate past and to see more clearly the reform agenda for the future.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.