The rule of law stipulates that no individual, organization, or institution in a democracy is above the law. What could happen if a society collectively withdrew its support for the rule of law? William Golding’s Lord of the Flies offers some clues.
In Golding’s 1954 dystopian novel, a group of boys is stranded on an island. They attempt to “have rules and agree” under the elected leadership of a boy named Ralph. However, order on the island quickly erodes.
The destruction of the island’s orderly society is led by a boy named Jack. In his quest for power, Jack rejects not just the rules that the boys create; he goes so far as to reject the system of governance they created. Ultimately, Jack establishes a breakaway tribe. To coax boys to join, Jack uses a carrot-and-stick combination of bullying and offering food and protection from an imaginary beast.
Under Jack’s leadership the island descends into a flaming wreck, its resources destroyed and several boys dead. Could this destruction be seen as a representation of what happens when a society rejects the rule of law?
The rule of law is the belief that it is better to be ruled by laws than to be ruled by leaders who can act any way they like. For example, dictators often exercise absolute power without any guidelines. If the law rules us, leaders cannot use their power any way they like. Political leaders, police, and judges are subject to the same laws as everyone else.
The rule of law also requires peaceful and orderly ways to create and change laws. There must be guidelines that everyone can understand and use. This idea about the rule of law is demonstrated in our legal and our political system. Our political system allows us to control how our laws are made and enforced through a democratic, parliamentary process. This process gives us an organized way to create and change the law.
To understand what went wrong on the island, it has to be understood that Jack’s rise to power was predicated on rejecting the island’s orderly ways. Because Jack gains his authority by ignoring the rule of law, it should come as no surprise that once in power Jack rules the island without the rule of law.
Having Jack solely in command leaves the boys with no way to collectively govern their society. Knowledge, discussion, and deliberation have no role in decision-making. With these traits of society lost, the outcome is total destruction of their island and their society.