Things usually start out OK, until somebody makes a questionable move. Then the arguments start, and things go downhill from there. Each player begins throwing out opinions and rule interpretations – all based on their best interests, of course. Everybody wants to win the game, so rule interpretations become more pragmatic than rational.
At this point, one of two things will happen: people will just give up and quit, or some brave soul will actually grab the box and read the instructions. Once everybody clearly understands the rules, the game can continue.
With defined rules, everybody enjoys the game, and the contest will end with a clear, undisputed winner.
Without rules, you end up with anger, frustration and chaos.
The same holds true in political systems. An orderly society requires the rule of law. Without it, those who manage to rise to positions of authority will begin exercising arbitrary power for their own benefit, just like players in a game with murky or nonexistent rules. Tyranny follows close behind.
Sixteenth century political philosopher Johannes Althusius recognized the need for clearly defined rules for government to maintain order and justice in a society.
“All power is limited by definite boundaries and laws. No power is absolute, indefinite, arbitrary and lawless. Every power is bound to laws, right and equity.”
The U.S. Constitution provides a framework, the rulebook, if you will, for the federal government; each clause, each principle, carefully crafted for a specific reason. The entire document aims to define, constrain and control federal power.
The ratifiers insisted on this rigid delegation of power. They recognized that without it, they would quickly fall into a tyrannical system like the one they fought a long, bloody war to escape. They understood the necessity of clearly defined rules that box in power-brokers. They knew from experience that vague or nonexistent constraints on authority would ultimately result in abuse of the people. Virginia ratification convention delegate Richard Henry Lee explained how the rule of law protects the citizenry.
“It goes on the principle that all power is in the people, and that rulers have no powers but what are enumerated in that paper. When a question arises with respect to the legality of any power, exercised or assumed by Congress, it is plain on the side of the governed. Is it enumerated in the Constitution? If it be, it is legal and just. It is otherwise arbitrary and unconstitutional.”
Note the source of power: the people. The people delegate certain powers to the government. A clearly defined written Constitution ensures the agents of that government understand their prescribed roles. Without that definition, we know what will happen. They will