Land of the Lawless
How power in America has turned the rule of law into a mere myth
By Ralph Nader
I n the late 1970s, I had lunch with the head of the Internal Revenue Service. I broached a subject long on my mind: “I have been told that the section on insurance in the tax code is so complex that fewer people understand it than understand Einstein’s theory of relativity.” He replied that he wouldn’t doubt if that were true. So I followed up and asked, “How can it be enforced?” His answer was that it largely wasn’t.
If this seems shocking, beware — lawlessness is an overwhelming fact of American life, though little attention is paid to this many-unsplendored phenomenon. How many times have we been told that our country is under the rule of law and that nobody is above it? Yet the country’s legal life is defined instead by major zones of lawlessness created, in one aspect, by noncompliance and lack of enforcement and, in another, by raw power, which can be political, economic, or armed. These multiplying zones have pushed the rule of law into little more than a torrent of dysfunctional myths.
You might think attending one of America’s 205 accredited law schools would help a person see through all this. But with few exceptions, law schools teach the rule of law as if it were the norm — as if public condemnations of criminal acts and sometimes prosecuted violations mean our culture really is defined by its laws. Courses push students to hone their analytic skills to find conflicts, inconsistencies, distinctions, ambiguities, and textual improvements in the formal legal system. Rarely is the rule of law exposed for what it is, though from time to time schools of legal thought do examine this — as did the “legal realists” at Yale Law School from the 1920s to the 1950s or the “critical legal studies” professors from the 1970s through the 1990s. But the language of these schools was too abstruse. The scholars did not focus enough on reaching outside their academic groves and were mostly unable to foster any kind of social justice movement that could make the law mean what it should — that is, justice.
Laws, like houses, lean on one another.
— Edmund Burke, 1765