John Carey on the Rule of Law | Facing History & Ourselves

John Carey on the Rule of Law

Political scientist John Carey discusses the importance of the rule of law in making democracy work.
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English — US


  • Civics & Citizenship
  • Democracy & Civic Engagement

John Carey on the Rule of Law

Hi. I'm Laura Tavares at Facing History and Ourselves. This week in our What Makes Democracy Work series, we spoke to John Carey. He's a professor of government at Dartmouth College. And he talked about the role of free and fair elections in a democracy, but especially emphasized the importance of the rule of law.

To explain the importance of the rule of law, Professor Carey told a story about an experience he had not long ago in Chile, a country whose long tradition of democracy was broken in 1973 when Augusto Pinochet came to power in a coup. During his years in power, Chileans lived under a repressive and violent military dictatorship. But since democracy was restored in Chile in 1990, there's been a renewed commitment to the rule of law as Professor Carey discovered.

I'm going to tell you a story about the rule of law because I think it's one of the concepts that political scientists throw around a lot. That's hardest to get a grasp on because it tends to mean a lot of things depending on who's talking. But when I'm talking about it, what I mean is that the law is applied to everybody regardless of their position in society or particularly regardless of whether they're friends or opponents of people with political power. It's applied to everybody equally.

And so the story I'll tell you is about a trip I took to Chile five or 10 years ago. I was flying down there to an academic conference. When you fly to Chile, the flights are all overnight. So I got on my plane in Miami and fell asleep. And I forgot that I had an apple in my computer bag. And they woke us up when we got to Chile. I was kind of groggy, got off the plane, and started to go through immigration to enter the country, forgot that I had the apple.

The immigration officials discovered the apple. It turns out it's illegal to bring produce or vegetation into Chile. And so they detained me. So they took me into a room and they showed me the apple. And of course, I said yeah, it was unintentional. But they made me sign a bunch of papers that acknowledged that I had broken their law. They showed me the full text of the law. We all agreed I was in the wrong here. I signed more forms. And they stamped them to that effect.

And then they took me with a guard out to the lobby section of the airport, so I could take Chilean currency out of the ATM, back into the windowless room. And I paid a fine. And we stamped and signed more papers to acknowledge that I had paid the fine. But after all of this, the guard says to me very seriously, would you like to be present for the destruction of the apple? I declined. But I love the fact that they asked me that question.

And I always ask my students, why were they even asking me that? Why would it have been important to me to be present for the destruction of the apple? And the answer is, and here's where the rule of law comes in. Imagine if they hadn't been confiscating an apple, but they were confiscating my laptop or something of real value.

Now here you are. You're traveling in a foreign land. You're not even a citizen. You don't know your rights. You may not have a lot of rights. And someone in a position of political authority is taking from you your most valuable possession. What you're going to think is this is a corrupt regime. They're taking advantage of me because I'm in a position of weakness. They're going to take that laptop. And they're going to sell it or they're going to keep it.

And had they been confiscating my laptop as opposed to just an apple, they would have been bound by law to give me the same option. They would have been bound by law to destroy the laptop and to give me the opportunity to witness them doing it. So that I could be confident that whatever reason they might have had to be taking my laptop, it wasn't just personal corruption. They weren't going to gain from it. They were going to destroy the confiscated property.

And all the way down to an apple, the Chilean immigration guys were doing this. And that to me is a really nice example of the rule of law, even in a completely mundane circumstance, obviously with no political consequence. But what matters is the law was applied equally, and the rights were scrupulously delivered even to someone of no political consequence.

Now we see around the world violations of that kind of principle all the time and in places where it really matters. And so just to close when we talk about democracy, most people when they think about democracy, they think about elections. And rightly so. You can't have democracy without elections. And they have to be clean. And we count the votes. And we determine who wins and loses and who governs for us.

But 99% of what happens in democracy is not about what happens on election day. It's what happens in between election day as governments make thousands, millions of decisions that affect our day-to-day lives. And there, what really matters is the rule of law.

In other words, citizens have to stay vigilant.

A lot of times when you're living in the middle of threats to democratic systems, it's not at all clear that what you're living in the middle of is a threat. Most of the time when democracies are compromised, it doesn't take the form of a military coup or a revolution with people in pitchforks and torches in the streets. It's a lot less dramatic than that and a lot more difficult to identify upfront.

I mean, I think the big challenge is that the protection of democracy when it is under threat depends on a widespread recognition by a bunch of people at the same time that a line has been crossed, whether it's courts that are hauling journalists off to jail for libel or for insulting the president or whether it's confiscation of property or the denial of citizenship rights to a certain group of people.

It's at those moments what you need is a critical mass of citizens who say we recognize that a line has been crossed here. And we're going to need to take some action to remedy that. And that action might be electoral. It might be to vote out the government at the next opportunity. But it might be even-- it might be more dramatic than that. It might be in the form of civil disobedience. It might be in the form of legal action. It might be in the form of bureaucrats within the government themselves saying no, this is unacceptable, this political decision from the term on high. And we're not going to enforce it.

But one way or another, you need to have a common recognition by a large group of people that yeah a line has been crossed here and we need to resist. And the problem-- I think the big challenge is that quite frequently, when you have these kind of minor assaults on democratic principles or minor assaults on the rule of law, there are few people at any given moment that recognize they're under assault. But you don't have that critical mass of people who all at once say yes, this is the line that's been crossed. And this is the moment where we need to take a stand.

And so it's this death by a thousand cuts that is much more of a threat to democracy than the mobs in the streets or the military coup that we could all recognize as an affront.

To learn more about how citizens make democracy work, please visit us at

John Carey on the Rule of Law

Political scientist John Carey discusses the importance of the rule of law in making democracy work.

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