I first heard the phrase "a culture of lawfulness" at a book signing event for Leoluca Orlando, author of Fighting the Mafia and Renewing Sicilian Culture. The event was held in a meeting room at the Hay-Adams Hotel in Wash DC, an impossibly expensive place by mortal standards but what a wonderful venue! Given the opportunity to see the inside and sample some appetizers at someone else's expense... how could I decline? In actuality, I did want to hear from Orlando about his experiences battling the Mafia during the 1990s. As it turned out, he was not able to make the event but a very capable colleague of his spoke on his behalf. Mr. Orlando was mayor of Palermo, the capital of Sicily, in mid-1990s. He undertook the dangerous task of working with other groups--notably elements of the Catholic church, concerned citizens, the Press, and a handful of government officials at the national level--to combat the Mafia for control of the city. He realized that to unseat the Mafia dons, he would have to re-instill a 'culture of lawfulness' among the citizenry, i.e. a sense among the public that lawful conduct was not only a noble thing but essential to the longterm welfare of society at the most fundamental level.
I don't know when the phrase was coined but many institutes, academics, and policy-wonks have adopted it when addressing the foundational attributes of a healthy society. The U.S. Institute of Peace defines rule of law as "an end state in which all individuals and institutions, public and private, and the state itself are held accountable to the law, which is supreme." Building on this principle, USIP goes on to address a culture of lawfulness this way: "the average person believes that formal laws are a fundamental part of justice or can be used to attain justice and that the justice system can enhance his or her life and society in general. Without a culture of lawfulness, the population will have no desire to access the system and may resort to violence to resolve grievances. For the rule of law to be fully realized, the population needs to follow the law and support its application voluntarily rather than through coercion."
In other words, both the society and its government value a framework of law that applies to both equally and without arbitrariness. When the government, in particular, begins to act as though the law only applies when and where it sees fit, it loses the trust and confidence of the people. Study after study has shown that even young children sense when something isn't fair; when one person receives unmerited special treatment or another person is punished without just cause. When this occurs as the result of a government's arbitrary application of law, when favoritism is more influential than principle, when people lose the sense that they have a fair shot at having their case heard just as much as someone higher up the socio-economic ladder or affiliated with one political party over another...when a culture loses the sense that 'lawfulness' is important, desirable, noble, and good...the underpinnings of social, economic, and political stability begin to crumble.
All this came to mind as I read Prof. David Skeel's article, A Nation Adrift From the Rule of Law. Highlighting actions taken by our government in its response to the financial crisis of 2008, he thoughtfully extrapolates the dangers presented when the government uses a legal fig leaf to cover otherwise indefensible actions intended to pursue a specific agenda. As Skeel observes, while some extreme actions are understandable and even necessary in the midst of a crisis, they are deeply damaging when continued under false pretenses. Ultimately, they create a gulf of distrust and cynicism between the government and the people it is meant to serve.
"Rule-of-law matters cannot be separated entirely from questions about the size and role of government. The more government grows, the harder it is to preserve rule-of-law virtues like transparency and clear rules of the game. But the rule of law is nevertheless a distinct and extraordinarily important concern, and it deserves separate consideration as the presidential campaign begins in earnest."
I agree with the Professor. Among all the other reasons making this upcoming election so important, the question of conduct by the Administration and Congress with respect to the "rule of law" in our country is among the most critical. We simply must rein-in our government and hold our elected officials accountable lest we completely lose sight of what has made our country as great as it has been.