The question has been asked for centuries: since the reign of absolute monarchs even till today, when we wonder why the wrong-doings of (rich) politicians often go unpunished. These rulers during the time of “absolute monarchs”, and also many politicians today would say that yes, they are above the law. However, I believe that in the essence and definition of what law truly is, no ruler can be above the law.

    Rulers cannot be above the law because they are not the creators of law. Yes, I know, you are probably laughing at the ridiculousness of the second half of the previous statement. Of course rulers—governors and kings, presidents and prime ministers—create law. That is their whole purpose! I ask you to ignore your own definition of law for just a moment. By the word “law” in this sense I don’t mean the hundreds of laws passed every year by Congress. Or the law in Massachusetts which states a person must not take more than 3 sandwiches at a funeral. By “law” I mean natural law—law that we are born knowing; law put there by God. Even a three-year-old knows it’s wrong to hurt or steal. This is natural law. When we break this natural law, we make excuses. Excuses like “he hit me first!” or “abortion is okay because you’re not killing an actual person”. The excuses we make when we break natural law prove to ourselves that it actually does exist. And governments did not create these laws. Rulers put in place restrictions and requirements to ensure that these laws are kept, but in the beginning, government did not create this natural law. God did, and it applies to all people, regardless of hierarchical standing. Even rulers cannot be above natural law.

Now, wait a second, you say. What about laws such as taxes, or security at airports, or the federal treason statute? These laws are not the same as natural law. They were not put in place by God; these laws were created by governments and rulers. Does that mean the rulers are above these laws? The short answer: no. Why? To answer this, let us now look from a different perspective. 

    Frederic Bastiat, a French libertarian from the 1800s, writes, “Each of us has a natural right—from God—to defend his person, his liberty, and his property”[1]. The rights that are given to us by God need to be defended, because there are always people out there who want to take them away. But individual defense is hard and undesirable, especially when we want to pursue other, happier aspects of our lives. Our solution? We create a government to which we delegate the responsibility of protecting our God-given rights.

    What is so important about this? Simply the fact that the people delegated powers to the government, and not the other way around—it all started with the people. Back to our French friend. Bastiat goes on to say: “The law is the organization of the natural right of lawful defense. It is the substitution of a common force for individual forces. And this common force is to do only what the individual forces have a natural and lawful right to do…”

    This is when all the pieces click in place. For a moment, let us assume that rulers and governments are above the law. Remember that the powers delegated to the government come from the people. So if the government is above the law, that must mean the people are above the law as well. But the people aren’t above the law. If they were, there would be no law. And because the people aren’t above the law, the government and the rulers in government aren’t above the law either—even if they do create some laws.

In action, however,  the statement “no ruler is above the law” can be hard to enforce. Even though the government in essence is not above the law, it is difficult to stop it from acting as such. People in history have deposed unworthy kings, rebelled against tyranny, and forced their rulers to act in accordance with the law, but that takes much work and risk. It is our duty as a people to ensure we limit our government to following its proper duties before it gets this drastic.

No matter what they may think, the reality is that rulers and governments are not above the law. Keeping them contained to this reality is our responsibility. Because, as George Washington said, “[Government is a] fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest instead of warming it should consume.”[2]

[1] – “The Law, by Frederic Bastiat” – Project Gutenberg. Accessed 22 Oct. 2020.
[2] – “Washington’s Farewell Address” – Accessed 25 Oct. 2020.