June 12, 2015
To receive Newt’s weekly newsletters, click here.
This Monday, June 15, is the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta (Great Charter).
At Runnymede, about 20 miles outside London, the barons forced King John of England to sign an agreement that represented a profound break in English history.
King John believed that he governed by divine right, that God had given him power to make law. He was literally above the law and able to define it. According to this theory, there were no limits on his authority.
Because John had fought a series of losing wars, he had lost prestige and was in desperate need of money.
The barons were tired of what they saw as a weak and incompetent King wasting their money on badly executed foreign campaigns. They insisted that in return for the money he needed, he would concede three key principles.
First, they insisted on the right to trial by jury which implied that juries could defy the King and find people innocent even if he wanted them punished.
Next, they demanded a vote on all taxation, so the King could no longer requisition money on his own with no checks and balances.
Finally, the very structure of the Magna Carta placed the King under the law because he was signing a document limiting his own powers.
While the Magna Carta and its principles grew and shrank in importance over the following centuries, there emerged a steadily growing bias toward the rule of law.
Finally, 551 years later, in 1776, the Americans adopted the most powerful statement of individual liberty based on their understanding of how the law had evolved.
In the American Declaration of Independence, the founders asserted:
General Jim Mattis (USMC, retired), the former head of the Central Command, constantly reminds people that American liberty under the rule of law remains the most radical idea of human freedom on the planet. It was and is the exception rather than the rule.
This model of liberty within the rule of law validated and managed through free elections involving a free people with rights to free speech has been remarkably successful. More people from more cultures speaking more languages have found the ability to pursue happiness within the American system than in any other country in history.
After World War II, freedom and self-government within the rule of law appeared to be spreading widely. With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 it seemed that the American model of self-government was on the verge of dominating worldwide.
That tide of progress has clearly fallen short, however, and begun to recede.
There are three major attacks underway against the rule of law:
- Islamic supremacism
Consider each threat.
First, authoritarianism is clearly on the rise once again as a system of government. Just as in the 1930s, authoritarian, centralized states with secret police powers increasingly threaten the rule of law and limited government around the world.
World leaders from Hungary to Venezuela to Cuba to Syria view the Putin model (state-dominated society with a strong man as leader) and the Chinese model (a central dictatorial committee) as desirable. There are a lot more fake democratic systems, in fact run by strong autocratic leaders, than anyone has taken into account.
Second, corruption is growing, especially in places that are becoming wealthy faster than their institutions and culture are adapting to the rule of law.
From drug cartels to corporate payoffs to rich oligarchs bribing underpaid officials, the spread of large-scale corruption continues to grow. This makes it possible for the wealthy and the corrupt to abuse the poor and the weak.
Finally, the growing movement for Islamic supremacy is a direct threat to freedom and the rule of law. Whether it is ISIS, Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, Al Qaeda, the Taliban, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Iranian dictatorship or a host of other Islamic supremacist organizations, their vision of imposing their beliefs by beheading or mass slaughter if necessary is clearly incompatible with freedom and the rule of law.
Everyone who cherishes the legacy of the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence has to confront the threats to our freedoms.
Twice in the last century, tyranny has threatened to overwhelm liberty.
In the 1930s, the combination of Communism, Fascism and Naziism with Stalin, Mussolini, Franco and Hitler as ruthless leaders seemed to be on the edge of destroying Western civilization.
In the 1970s, the momentum of Communism from the Soviet Union, Cuba and China combined with appeasement and subversion in the West led to books about the death of democracy and a general sense of malaise and looming defeat.
We overcame both challenges with courageous leadership and moral clarity.
Once again we have to draw on our memories of the great principles of freedom and prepare to win the struggle against the three enemies of freedom.