A Philosopher's Blog

Rule of Law & Tyranny

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 1, 2015

One interesting narrative about the riots in Baltimore involves the concept of the rule of law. Put roughly, the rule of law is the idea that the law should govern rather than the arbitrary decisions of those in power. The notion is sometimes applied to the citizens as well—namely that the citizens should follow the rule of law to resolve conflicts—as opposed to engaging in activities such as riots or vigilantism.

Thinker such as John Locke have laid out arguments as to why the rule of law is preferable to that of the state of nature. These arguments are generally persuasive, especially since Locke emphasizes the moral responsibilities of the state in regards to the good of the people. That is, he does not simply advocate obedience to whatever the laws happen to be, but requires that the laws and the leaders prove worthy of obedience. Laws or leaders that are tyrannical are not to be obeyed, but are to be defied and justly so.

Since I find Locke’s arguments appealing, it is hardly surprising that I favor rule of law—at least when the laws are good and the leaders are acting for the good of the people. When the government has moral legitimacy, the laws and the leaders have the right to expect people to follow the laws and listen to the leaders. However, when the laws or leaders violate the basic agreement (that the laws are for the good of the people and the leaders are to not be tyrants), then their legitimacy evaporates.

Some conservatives speak of the tyranny of Obama and how the Democrats wish to create a tyrannical state. Interestingly enough, they are right to be worried about tyranny. However, their timeline is in error: tyranny is already here.

John Locke provides the following definition of “tyranny”:  “Tyranny is the exercise of power beyond right, which nobody can have a right to.  And this is making use of the power any one has in his hands, not for the good of those who are under it, but for his own private separate advantage.”

The United States seems to meet this definition. In 2014, researchers at Princeton and Northwestern conducted a study to determine the extent to which laws reflect the views of the majority versus the interests of those in power. This study, titled “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens” , used data gathered from 1981 to 2002.

The researchers examined about 1,800 polices from that time and matched them against the preferences expressed by three classes: the average American (50th income percentile), the affluent American (the 90th percentile of income) and the large special interest groups.

The results are hardly surprising: “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

While following these laws would be to conform to the rule of law, it would also be to embrace tyrannical laws—laws crafted for the advantage of those holding power and not the good of the people.

While the people who strike out in riots are probably unfamiliar with the research in question, they do know the obvious: they live within a political and economic system that primarily serves the “private, separate advantage” of the elite class and has little to offer them. As such, it should be no shock that some people do not embrace the rule of such law. If they are striking out against these laws and their riots are a revolt, they are revolting against what seems to be a tyrannical system. That is, one that serves the interests of the powerful few and not the good of the people. Or, to be fair to those who are critical of the riots, perhaps they are just thugs who are breaking things.

Continuing with tyranny, Locke notes that “Where-ever law ends, tyranny begins, if the law be transgressed to another’s harm; and whosoever in authority exceeds the power given him by the law, and makes use of the force he has under his command, to compass that upon the subject, which the law allows not, ceases in that to be a magistrate; and, acting without authority, may be opposed, as any other man, who by force invades the right of another.”

Sadly, this seems to accurately describe the excessive use of force against citizens by some police officers. Baltimore, as has been widely reported, has paid out millions of dollars in settlements due to the wrongful use of force by police against citizens. As people do like to point out, not all police officers are bad and there are excellent officers. However, even a cursory examination of the problems with policing in American cities shows that Locke’s definition of tyranny is routinely met. As such, it is evident that the rule of law was already broken well before the riots.

While Locke did not use this phrase, the rule of law is a two-way street and those who are charged with enforcing the law must also obey that law—otherwise it would be rather unreasonable to expect obedience from the citizens. As such, the most obvious step to restoring rule of law is to ensure that those charged with enforcing the laws are also following the laws.

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on May 1, 2015 at 8:50 am

    I agree that we have in many respects a tyranny. Part of the problem is that politicians (of both parties) ignore the will of the people.

    Canada has just passed a law that says if you want to enact a new regulation you must at the same time get rid of an old one. This is a good start.

    Government at all levels is too fat and too unaccountable. No matter how much money you feed it, it always wants more. This is why the police are told to go after, for example, people selling “loosies.” I suspect the main reason police are harassing poor people is that the police department needs money. I also suspect that these orders come from the top.

    Also, Mike–what are you supposed to do with the “bad apples” when pubic employee unions make it nearly impossible to get rid of them?

    • ronster12012 said, on May 1, 2015 at 9:02 am


      If cops are going after people selling ‘loosies’ because the PD needs money, what would you say about these civil asset forfeiture shakedowns(again because the PD needs/likes money)? Sounds like banditry to me, but hey, I am no lawyer so what would I know….

      • T. J. Babson said, on May 1, 2015 at 10:13 am

        Pure banditry, without a doubt.

  2. ronster12012 said, on May 1, 2015 at 8:56 am


    If the point of having laws is justice, and if it is as Cicero said “the more laws, the less justice” then what does it mean when parliaments and congresses are churning out laws like sausage machines?

    I read somewhere that in ancient Athens the entire legal code was engraved on the walls at the four gates to the city. Somehow the city still functioned without armies of lawyers splitting hairs and looking for loopholes…

  3. WTP said, on May 1, 2015 at 9:00 am

    I suspect the main reason police are harassing poor people is that the police department needs money. I also suspect that these orders come from the top.

    Mostly that second part. If the former is a problem, those at the top should be doing something about it.

    Government at all levels is too fat and too unaccountable. No matter how much money you feed it, it always wants more

    TJ, do you understand you are addressing someone who is very much in favor of big government? His paycheck depends on it, he consistently comes down on the side of government over business even if that business is the flower shop of a 70 year old grandma. I am constantly puzzled by the context of the questions you ask Mike. Or are they meant to be rhetorical? I mean sometimes they obviously are, but as we are in the dying days of satire and parody the rhetorical is also becoming decreasingly discernible.

    • T. J. Babson said, on May 1, 2015 at 9:43 am

      You can safely assume they are meant to be rhetorical. I have yet to find a crack in Mike’s shield of denial as to the deleterious effects of the policies he supports.

    • Anonymous said, on May 8, 2015 at 5:19 am

      I can honestly say that I never received orders to harass poor people. Everyone on here needs to do a lot more investigation of things through other avenues than pop media. The BIGGEST incentive that police have is to do nothing about anything. Why bother? Why not drink my coffee and listen to the radio in peace, as opposed to risk myself, do work, and expose myself to constant criticism from anti-police folks?

      Now, there is something called the “heavy badge”. When a cop lets his ego and inner rage that ALWAYS has the potential to build in that line of work.

      How many nights did my hands shake with adrenaline after fighting with a guy in the dark trying to get handcuffs on him? How many concussions did I get? How many times did people tell me they hated me, to my face, spit in my face? One suspect had Hep-C, and I underwent 6 months of testing..(he told me he had AIDS but the doctors were not allowed to tell me if he tested positive. How many cars did I approach wondering if this would be the time I got shot?

      How many dead, mangled, or rotting bodies did I see, some suicides with pieces of their brain hanging from hotel room ceilings? People having their heads ripped off in car accidents. How many drunken people, fighting and kicking, stuffed into a cruiser, only to have them be so unafraid of the “brutal cops” that they kick my rear window out. I think I lost 6 or 7 rear windows in 8 years. And for what? To be criticized constantly. To be questioned always. To be scorned.

      And your damn straight that I came out of that a different person. And I’d never go back to the person I was before I was a police officer.

      I still miss that damn job. there’s none other like it.


      • WTP said, on May 8, 2015 at 6:06 am

        Why bother? Why not drink my coffee and listen to the radio in peace, as opposed to risk myself, do work, and expose myself to constant criticism from anti-police folks?

        Now there’s something we all have to fear from the police. Especially those who live in places where gun control is a governmental obsession…like Maryland, for instance. FWIH, it looks like those cops in Baltimore are getting railroaded just like in Ferguson, NYC, etc. The media reports were very inaccurate. Given that there seems to be so much enthusiasm for pulling back on the First Amendment, and given that we’ve had all these riots over things that have been proven to be false, where are the checks on the media, SJW’s, and those in CQA to shut up? Isn’t what the media has done just in Ferguson far more inflammatory than the cartoon contest in Texas?

  4. ajmacdonaldjr said, on May 1, 2015 at 1:22 pm

    There exist many factors that have contributed to the sad plight of the urban black population of the US. But people need to take responsibility for their poor choices, bad decisions, and criminal behavior. And they need to stop blaming “the system” “the police” and “the man” for their own personal failings. People reap what they sow.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 4, 2015 at 11:01 am

      Personal responsibility is important. But it would be a mistake to not consider the social context in which a person has to operate. To use an analogy, it would be like saying that all running races are the same, without considering the course conditions, the distance and so on. A kid born into poverty in a crappy school district is going to have it much harder than a kid born to Prince William. It is easy to say the poor kid needs to take responsibility and make good decisions, but his options are rather limited. It is rather like saying that a person running an uphill course on a mountain needs to run harder-that is true, but running up a mountain is harder than running a flat course.

  5. wtp said, on May 1, 2015 at 7:21 pm

    Apropos of nothing, something I ran across at Ace of Spades and decided to post here. I don’t really know why. I think it’d the Belvedere that’s driving me at this point. Either that or God…but what’s really the difference?

    I really want to stress here that their claims do not proceed merely from a dispute over philosophy (or, really, theology), but from a complete failure to understand the basic facts of the situation — and that no matter how many times these know-nothings have the facts explained to them, they will not deal with them, because know-nothings are very stupid people who make the world a simpler and stupider place than it really isbecause it’s all they can understand.

    Here, stupidity is the gateway drug to cruelty, as usual.

  6. nailheadtom said, on May 3, 2015 at 1:26 am

    “As such, the most obvious step to restoring rule of law is to ensure that those charged with enforcing the laws are also following the laws.”

    And how is that done?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 4, 2015 at 11:05 am

      That is a good question.

      • Anonymous said, on May 9, 2015 at 12:13 am

        You still have not shown that the problem is large, or any different than it has ever been.


        • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 9, 2015 at 10:22 am

          Here is some evidence that it is widespread: http://www.theamericanconservative.com/seven-reasons-police-brutality-is-systematic-not-anecdotal/.

          Good policing is a bipartisan issue-those who believe in the rule of law would seem to be committed to having a good police force. We know it can be done-there are excellent police officers and some very good departments. Some basic solutions would be better training for officers, better pay for officers, and programs to forge stronger links between the communities that are policed and the police. Police are generally under-trained, under-resourced and often patrol into communities rather from patrolling within as part of the community. The community also needs training-as you know, people often treat police unfairly and with hostility. Many people don’t like the police, that is until they need a cop.

          I would agree that the problem is probably not different from how it has been, but the fact that something has been bad a long time does not make it good.

        • WTP said, on May 10, 2015 at 10:16 pm

          It would be interesting what these discussions would be like if brutalizing police got as much attention as police brutality.


          Of course, such would itself be some kind of logical fallacy. Or is.

          • WTP said, on May 10, 2015 at 10:33 pm

            Heh…and so it goes.


            No sooner do I post such, I check google news and I see they arrested two “folks” for a murder of cops from yesterday that I heard nothing about. Justifiable, some might say. Can you really blame these ignorant fools when they swim in a sea of lies?

            • magus71 said, on May 11, 2015 at 2:29 am


              What is amazing to me is that the whole “police brutality is on the rise” thing is taken at face value, when the facts point in exactly the opposite direction. In fact, police shootings of blacks is down 70% since the 70s. Has anyone on here met my challenge to show data supporting increased police violence–moreover–increased unlawful violence?

              And here’s a story connected to the 2 police officers killed: http://www.breitbart.com/big-government/2015/05/10/subway-suspends-worker-who-celebrated-mississippi-cops-deaths-with-calls-for-rioting/

              Blacks are in big trouble in this country, and libs are shamelessly taking advantage of it for votes. Thus the mob our founding fathers feared when it comes to democracy. So bad are race relations now, for the first time in my Army career I’ve seen them impact how a unit functioned. In my unit, there’s a group of black soldiers, led by a senior black NCO, that plainly treat white soldiers with disdain. One more reason for me to get out, because as I’ve said, it’ll get worse before it gets better.

              Thomas Sowell:

              You cannot take any people, of any color, and exempt them from the requirements of civilization — including work, behavioral standards, personal responsibility, and all the other basic things that the clever intelligentsia disdain — without ruinous consequences to them and to society at large.

            • WTP said, on May 11, 2015 at 7:37 am

              Dude. You’re trying to fight lies with facts. That’s like bringing a knife to a unicorn fight. You need a greater lie. Something like “Hands up, don’t shoot” or Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

            • T. J. Babson said, on May 11, 2015 at 7:48 am

              100% agree with Sowell quote. I was once on a review committee with an *extremely* liberal female professor from MIT. It was clear that in her heart that she did not believe that blacks could perform at the same level as everybody else and therefore needed help.

              I believe that liberals are guilty of racism because they expect so little from blacks.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 11, 2015 at 1:09 pm

              Good point-some folks on the left suffer from what they probably like to think of as benign paternalism, but is (as you say) just a “nicer” racism.

  7. Anonymous said, on May 8, 2015 at 5:37 am

    Some Swedish cops on vacation in NY… Welcome to America.


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