Why is the rule of law so difficult to keep once established? Is it because of the limitation of law, or something to do with human emotions and behavior? We cannot break laws of nature, but law made by humans is so fragile.

  • 3
    Free Will? Commented Jan 13, 2023 at 6:59
  • 1
    In fact, this is simple: because there's always a tension between the individual goals and the goals of the group. The individual can easily act against the group for its own benefit (e.g. I steal). Meanwhile, the group prevails over the individual (i.e. they are always more people), ergo juridical law tends to prevail.
    – RodolfoAP
    Commented Jan 13, 2023 at 14:07
  • @MauroALLEGRANZA could u elaborate a bit how is free will connected to rule of law ?
    – quanity
    Commented Jan 18, 2023 at 5:10
  • Human laws are made by humans and they rules on behaviors; thus, individual may decide not to follow the. Natural laws are relative to facts outside human control. Commented Jan 18, 2023 at 7:53
  • "law made by humans is so fragile" According to who? According to what measure?
    – MichaelK
    Commented Nov 24, 2023 at 18:23

8 Answers 8


First, don't conflate Natural Law with laws created to govern the behavior of people. While both of them are a type of rule, the first is a description of how the physical universe seems to invariably operate. (Actually, philosophers of science have largely abandoned Natural Law in the 20th century.) The rule of law in terms of humans attempting to legislate behavior is an act of cooperation, and therefore is a social phenomenon. Where people disagree with the cooperative effort, rule of law breaks down. SEP's article Rule of Law covers many ideas about how some might be in disagreement with it or what it requires.

As well as these debates about the value of the Rule of Law there is, within the camp of those who stand for legality, incessant controversy about what the Rule of Law requires.

Some obvious reasons Rule of Law fails are:

  • Some people who pretend to advocate for it secretly subvert it. This is known as corruption. Judges have a lot of power, and often as civil servants, for instance, they don't make the same sort of money that is made in the private sector. That may encourage them to accept bribes or trade horses with powerful figures. The corruption of judges makes a farce out of the proceedings. If there aren't mechanisms to investigate and remove judges from power, then the corruption spreads as others see the benefits. Lawyers too may be subject to corruption, which is why legal communities often have ethical standards and disbar attorneys who are caught acting inappropriately.
  • Laws are often passed by politicians, and politicians may pass laws specifically to subvert the rule of law itself. Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany through legal means. But once had been afforded the power, he subverted the rule of law by co-opting elements of the government and abusing his power. Politicians are also open to corruption like bribery, and will abuse the system to accrue power. Without valid, independent oversight and a means to arrest those who would subvert the government, corruption tends to grow. In the US, the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation routinely watch or indict sitting politicians even in the US Congress, and Congress has the means to censure its own.
  • Sometimes, force is used to overthrow the government in place to maintain the rule of law. Many governments have fallen to a coup d'etat led by charismatic leaders or the nations military. The US in 2021 had an insurrectionist mob storm the Capitol building and cause millions of dollars of damage. At the time, Congress was sequestered in chambers and both insurrectionists and police were killed in the clash. In other countries, generals will send the army with tanks through the streets to establish control. Neither are conducive to the rule of law.
  • The interpretation of laws change, and sometimes the laws themselves become antiquated, or are so harsh to begin with, the people whom the law governs rise up in revolution. The American and French Revolutions are historical examples. More recently, the Berlin Wall fell after the German people decided that the Cold War needed to end. Germans on both sides of the wall were undermining the laws set in place in the East and the West, and the result was a new set of laws to bring together the German people again.

Why is the rule of law brittle? Laws are an attempt to control human behavior, and human beings often decide that the laws themselves don't apply, shouldn't apply, and need to change. In an ideal world, the laws themselves are revised, but in places in the world, economics and society are imperfect, and the result is a power struggle. Sometimes it's between man and society, and sometimes it's between one society versus another. In all cases, somebody simply disagrees with the law. Thus, one might hear "rules are meant to be broken".

  • U are genius of philosophy
    – quanity
    Commented Jan 17, 2023 at 5:41
  • @quanity Unfortunately, not. I've yet to contribute anything worthy of genius-level praise. I do have a lot of books and read them, however. :D
    – J D
    Commented Jan 18, 2023 at 18:21
  • 1
    Cooperation is essentially a natural law, it has mathematically predictable benefit. However, people are bad at math. Which is to say, they opt for selfishness because they are not sufficiently intelligent.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jan 19, 2023 at 2:53
  • 1
    @ScottRowe It might be more accurate to say that cooperation/competition is a genetic mechanism that extends from human cognition down to cellular colonies, and is inseparable from biological reproduction. I have to agree that intelligence tends to advance the agenda of cooperation over competition generally, and that a diverse, broad definition of intelligences supports that reason and education tend to lead to harmony. The original problem of human cooperation is transitioning from a zero-sum game to one that is not.
    – J D
    Commented Jan 19, 2023 at 18:31
  • 1
    I'd also venture to say that the primary benefits of religion is that it is a mechanism to encourage that transition at all levels of intelligence by providing a series of narratives at every level.
    – J D
    Commented Jan 19, 2023 at 18:33

The law is enforced by humans. Humans are notorously inefficient. This is why law is so easily broken.

Consider machines implementing a law. Suppose your car's alarm don't stop buzzing if engine is on and car door is open. This law has to be followed because its implemented by a machine.

Consider attendance machine that automatically deduct from one's salary. Suddenly everybody start coming to office at time.

Machines makes no exceptions. They don't get tired or bored or fed up.

Is it right to make machines implement a law? Only if the law is always right.

  • 1
    Robocop to the rescue. It's almost worth trying...
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jan 19, 2023 at 11:50
  • This sounds like the subsumption of cases under laws was a mechanical thing. It isn't. It is a form of interpretation. There are several theories about how that should be done out there in law but ultimately, it is a decision. That's why Carl Schmitt once wrote that the judge is the real sovereign within the Rule of Law.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Jul 4, 2023 at 16:23
  • No citizen can be sovereign. Thats what rule of law means. You cannot have both. A judge is supposed to follow law, not decide as he wish. Interpretation is only when law is vague and therefore in very limited scenarios. Duty of judge is to do the due process, listen to witnesses, look at evidences, give an ear to accused and another to plaintiff and use the head in between to decide.
    – Atif
    Commented Jul 4, 2023 at 17:01

Man-made laws vs. The Laws of Nature is what explains part of the problem. To follow man-made laws we have to sometimes (attempt to) violate the laws of nature (human nature as shaped by evolution comes with certain proclivities/hardwired dispositions that are, let's just say, inconvenient). A solution presents itself - align man-made laws with the laws of nature, but then that's precisely the problem (our nature is ill-suited for morality and we're in that sense sinners asked to be saints). The fragility you refer to is only relative - even titanium has a tensile limit beyond which it'll shatter like glass - that is to say the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars (laws), but in us.

  • Very ambiguous: "Man-made laws vs. The Laws of Nature". In simple words, the problem would come, for example, from opposing thermodynamics to financial laws. Perhaps the terms could be more precise.
    – RodolfoAP
    Commented Jan 13, 2023 at 14:03
  • 1
    Good has been described as an uphill task and evil as rolling down a hill. Gracias for the comment.
    – Hudjefa
    Commented Jan 13, 2023 at 15:49
  • If you think about what rolls downhill, it makes more sense to go uphill. 'Good' can mean "good for you".
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jan 19, 2023 at 11:51
  • @ScottRowe, 😄. The success rate is not so encouraging mon ami! We're designed to ... roll downhill and plus there's nothing up there at the top of the hill. Just kidding!
    – Hudjefa
    Commented Jan 19, 2023 at 12:15

A law, in the sense you mean, is simply a statement issued by a governing body, which demands that others behave in a certain way. The law does nothing, in itself, to ensure compliance. People can decide for themselves whether to comply with the law or break it, based on what they perceive to be the relative pros and cons of the two options.

  • The law usually includes provisions for enforcement and penalty, otherwise it would be a pointless exercise.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jan 19, 2023 at 2:46
  • @ScottRowe indeed but those provisions do not ensure compliance, they merely present people with choices. For example, your choice is to stick within a speed limit or take the risk of a fine. Every day millions of people break all kinds of laws because the enforcement arrangements are not effective. Commented Jan 19, 2023 at 7:07
  • It is like dealing with children: you say, "This is not a safe thing to do", then someone goes ahead and does it anyway. The big parents have to track them down, figure out who did what to whom, and decide a result. It would be nice if humans would grow up, but I'm not holding my breath.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jan 19, 2023 at 11:48

As I sometimes tell people, the phrase 'rule of law' is poor shorthand for the more complex idea of "rules that establish peace between individuals under the law". That's why we sometimes hear the phrase 'breaking the peace' as a synonym for 'breaking the law', or why police are called 'peace officers' in some jurisdictions. The goal here is for laws to establish non-conflictual conditions, where problems are resolved without agitation or recourse to aggression. It's one of the central Liberal ideals, and it's important to note that 'rule' in this idealistic context isn't meant in the political sense of having a ruler, but in the communitarian sense of having rules of behavior that people consent to follow.

With that in mind, it should be clear that an 'established peace between individuals' entails an element of civil faith. We must trust (believe) that others are generally inclined to respect these peace-creating rules, and grant them the benefit of doubt when it comes to conflicts, otherwise we will tend to retreat into an aggressive/defensive posture. This has many shortfalls, such as:

  • People who are ornery or trollish and enjoy creating conflict, particularly if there is no risk to themselves
  • People with 'red-line' beliefs that preclude the acceptance of peace between themselves and others
  • People who manipulate social rules for their own advantage
  • People with a keen desire for power (rule in the political sense) who foster conflict in order to gather power to themselves
  • People who try to enforce peace for themselves in a one-sided, oppressive-for-others manner.

All of these people and groups have a vested interest in destroying the peace that lies between individuals, and over time this can take a toll on the faith that others have in the rule of peace.

'Rule of law' in the degraded sense is a dead thing: an authoritarian imposition that satisfies no one and merely maintains social tension and conflict at an ever-rising pitch. "Rules that establish peace between individuals" are a living and organic social contract. We can damage it and it will heal; we can destroy it and it will come back; these are necessary relations because 'rule of peace' is integral to any established community. It's always a work in progress.

  • It would be nice if peace had some teeth to defend itself with. If it was more like natural laws, people wouldn't bother to try going against it.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jan 19, 2023 at 2:45

Because it is a trivial matter to break the law and an incredibly complicated process to 1) create it, 2) enforce it, and 3) deal with the consequences of its being broken.

Any jackass can kick down a barn that it took a craftsman to build.


Rule of law is a political ideal that all citizens and institutions within a country, state, or community are accountable to the same laws, including lawmakers and leaders. You seem to mean, why do people break laws. And, I can't help but think if there wasn't a real temptation for some people to break laws, we wouldn't have needed rules and penalties, so there's a selection bias - the bad things no one does we generally don't need laws against.

Widespread unrest, is a challenge to rule of law, like looting and riots, because the scale means laws can't be enforced.

Two tier or multi-tier justice is a challenge to rule of law, because people buy their way out of facing justice, or use their fame and profile, or other means.

Corrupt or partisan judges are also a challenge to rule of law.

Maintaining order and rule of law, is the bedrock of political society, and loss of trust and mechanisms to sustain it risks ending the social-contract that binds a community, and it fragmenting or decohering. Like say Myanmar currently. Rule of law relies on buy-in by a whole community, you can't effectively police people without their consent. We generally only come to recognise how fragile rule of law is, when it fails.


First, the rule of law is fundamental to an ordered society. If the government, or powerful groups, or powerful individuals can break the law with impunity, then authoritarianism and civil unrest are inevitable. Common law is easily understood and most people are very unlikely to commit a very serious offence, like murder. Some statutory law is complex, and people are more likely to offend, sometimes inadvertently. Finally, laws that gather public support are seldom breached, for example public smoking bans. Natural laws and human laws are completely different. Law breaking cannot be completely eliminated, but it is observation of the rule of law itself which is most important.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .