Lost Virtue

Joseph Raz revisits the subject of the virtue of the Rule of Law

Joseph Raz recently posted on SSRN a short essay call “The Law’s Own Virtue“, based on remarks he delivered on the occasion of receiving the Tang Prize. The essay revisits themes explored in Professor Raz’s famous article on “The Rule of Law and Its Virtue”, defending the same view that the Rule of Law does not mean the rule of good law, and that its requirements on the exercise of public power are formal and procedural, but not substantive. It is a view that I share, for what that’s worth. But there is an aspect of Professor Raz’s argument which is new, at least in comparison with his classic article, and which strikes me as deeply disturbing.

Professor Raz now makes the intention of government actors central to his discussion of the Rule of Law. He starts from the proposition that “one, commonly agreed, aim of the [Rule of Law] is to avoid arbitrary government”. (5) This is where the focus on the reasons for government action enter the picture, as Professor Raz defines “[a]rbitrary government [as] the use of power that is indifferent to the proper reasons for which power should be used”. (5) Government power should be used “to follow and to apply the law”; (6) If it is used with this intention, the Rule of Law is being complied with. It follows that

not every failure of the government to be guided by the law is a breach of the [Rule of Law]. For the most part such failure is due to mistakes and incompetence. Even the most conscientious and qualified government is liable to fail in such ways. (6)

Intention is also relevant when assessing (from the Rule of Law standpoint) the exercise of interpretive and discretionary powers, and indeed the rule-making powers. When making or interpreting law under the Rule of Law, governments must “not … promote their own interest, but that of  … the governed … includ[ing] their moral interests”. (8) Beyond that, however,

[d]etermining what ends to pursue in the exercise of discretionary powers, or in the interpretation of the law, is the stuff of ordinary politics, and the [Rule of Law] does not review the success of politics. (6)

Professor Raz sums his argument as follows:

Based in the main on only two premises, that governments may act only in the interests of the governed, and that honest mistakes about what that is, and what it entails are the stuff of ordinary politics, and honest mistakes about this do not violate the rule of law, I concluded that the virtue of the rule of law lies in tending to secure that the government acts with the manifest intention of serving the interests of the governed. (15)

Professor Raz’s original view of the virtue of law was that it was indifferent to governmental purposes. Compliance with the Rule of Law, he famously wrote, is like the sharpness of a knife: a quality that can be used in the service of bad ends, as well as good ones. The test for such compliance had to do with the form of laws (notably their clarity, openness, and stability) and with respect for legal procedures (the independence of courts, the executive complying with the law that authorizes it to act, and so on). An ill-intentioned, self-serving or abusive government could comply with the Rule of Law; a well-intentioned but incompetent one, not necessarily.

This view is reversed in Professor Raz’s return to the subject and, as noted above, I do not think that his change of heart is for the better. I think it is dangerous and counter-productive to judge governments by intention, both as a general matter and specifically when it comes to assessing their compliance with the Rule of Law. Moreover, even if intention were a relevant consideration, the pursuit of the “interest of the governed” seems a particularly unhelpful standard by which to judge governments.

Generally speaking, I think we would do well to embrace Lord Acton’s distrust of “[t]hose who judge morality by the intention [and] have been less shocked at the crimes of power … than at those committed by men resisting oppression”. The time elapsed since Acton’s death should only have reinforced this attitude. And it is especially relevant to the issue of the Rule of Law. Governments themselves don’t allow people to get away with law-breaking by pleading “mistakes and incompetence”. If you are caught speeding, telling the cop that you’re just a mediocre driver and, while desirous of complying with the traffic code, sometimes forget to check how fast you are going isn’t going to get you too far, I suspect. So why should you have any patience with similar claims by a government? Lon Fuller, in particular, emphasized the reciprocity that the Rule of Law fosters in the relationship between government and citizen: as the quid pro quo for the citizen’s law-abidingness, the government ensures that the law allows the citizen to plan his or her life. Under Professor Raz’s approach, this reciprocity can break down. The citizen is still asked to obey, but the government only to intend to do so.

Of course, Fuller, as well Professor Raz in “The Rule of Law and Its Virtue”, recognized that compliance with the Rule of Law is (usually) a matter of degree. A certain level of compliance is necessary; beyond that, the question becomes one of excellence, and perhaps even excess. But I don’t think that this is Professor Raz’s point in “The Law’s Own Virtue”. If “manifest intention” to act in the appropriate way is the relevant standard, then even fairly egregious failures, so long as they are due to good faith incompetence, perhaps even honest carelessness, will be excused, and not only a government’s inability to reach excellence.

Consider an example that I have previously discussed here as a Rule of Law failure: the Canadian law on the standard of review in administrative law. The Supreme Court changes the rules all the time, sometimes announcing that it does so and sometimes not; it often fails to follow the rules it has itself announced; its deferential approach is not impartial between the citizen and the government and allows erroneous legal interpretations arrived at by decision-makers who are not independent of the government to become the law. For all that, I am happy to suppose that the Supreme Court judges intend to follow the law, except in those cases where they (not inappropriately) reconsider their precedents, and that to the extent they are engaged in (re-)making the law, they think they act in the best interest of Canadians. The vexing inability to come up with and follow a truly legal framework is, at least for the most part, the fruit of plentiful mistakes and abundant incompetence. But so what? That doesn’t change the fact that where citizens (not to mention other judges) ought to find law, they find muddle. The Supreme Court’s pronouncements provide no useful guidance, and thus appear arbitrary, even if they do not meet Professor Raz’s narrow definition of arbitrariness. 

This example also points to another troubling claim in Professor Raz’s discussion: that legal interpretation is equivalent to an exercise of discretionary powers and must be assessed as “the stuff of ordinary politics”, not a Rule of Law issue. As not only John Marshall but also the Professor Raz of “The Rule of Law and Its Virtue” recognized, the province and duty of the judiciary to say what the law is. This is significant, because the courts are not engaged in “ordinary”—which I think must mean partisan and self-interested—politics when interpreting or even developing the law. Their performance in doing so cannot be judged politically, either as a normative matter (because political criteria are the wrong ones to apply to judicial decisions) or as a descriptive one (because the courts, being unelected and independent, are not subject to political judgment anyway). Of course, a political judgment in the shape of legislation or constitutional amendment overturning a judicial decision is possible; perhaps this is what Professor Raz means. But such legislation is fairly rare, and constitutional amendment still more so. In the ordinary course of things, the only judgment that we can pass on the judiciary’s exercise of interpretive and creative powers is a moral one, and it must be based on Rule of Law-related criteria, not political ones.

Finally, in any case, I think that “the interest of the governed” is not a standard by which the actions of any institution of government can usefully be assessed. “The governed” are not a homogeneous undifferentiated mass. The are individuals, organizations, and groups. Their interests differ, and sometimes—indeed, quite often—clash. Government action that is in the interest of some will run counter to the interest of others. The more things some people get governments to do, the more toes these governments must step on to accomplish these things (whether these toes’ owners are aware of being trampled on or, as often is the case, not). Now, perhaps the idea is that any plausible-seeming conception of the public interest will do, so long as the government is not blatantly oppressive and self-serving. Yet not only is it doubtful that even this test can eliminate controversy but, more importantly, it is quite meaningless. Protectionist legislation that blatantly favours, say, producers over consumers, or indeed government over citizens, can be dressed up in some public-spirited guise, and intelligent people will fall for this trickery, be they the judges of the Supreme Court in R v Comeau, 2018 SCC 15, or Sir William Blackstone, who wrote that

the statute of king Charles II which prescribes … a dress for the dead, who are all ordered to be buried in woollen … is a law consistent with public liberty; for it encourages the staple trade, on which in great measure depends the universal good of the nation.

The Rule of Law, I submit, is not only not the rule of good law, but also not the rule of well-intentioned law. The purposes of public institutions that create, interpret, and apply the law, or exercise discretionary powers granted by law, are not relevant to assessing their compliance with the Rule of Law. Innocent incompetence can lead to Rule of Law failures, while a self-interested government, for example one preoccupied with lining the pockets of its supporters and winning the next election, however worthy of condemnation, may well abuse its power in a manner that is consistent with the Rule of Law. Professor Raz’s classic article on the virtue of the Rule of Law remains an essential reference point for those of us who are interested in the subject. His return to the topic, sadly, will not be one.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach constitutional law at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, in New Zealand. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and then did graduate work at the NYU School of Law.

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