As I often try to explain to students, there is an important difference between rights and privileges. The essential element of the rule of law–the characteristic that distinguishes it from the exercise of power–is that the same rules apply to everyone. If everyone doesn’t have rights, no one does. Some people may have privileges, but that isn’t the same thing.
The deal is, the person engaging in free speech who is saying something with which you disagree has the same right to voice his opinion as the person with whom you agree. If we don’t all play by the same rules, if some people have more “rights” than others, no one really has rights. They have privileges that can be withdrawn if they offend or oppose those in power.
The rule of law is fundamental to a constitutional government. It is glaringly obvious that Donald Trump does not understand either its definition or its importance. It is equally obvious that he wouldn’t respect it if he did. Like most autocrats and would-be autocrats, he is all about self-aggrandizement, the exercise of power and the ability to reward his friends and punish his enemies.
Trump’s lack of comprehension of, or respect for, the rule of law is one of the many reasons he is so unfit to hold public office.
What triggered this rant was an article about Trump’s decision to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum–a decision he has evidently been reconsidering in recent days. (When your policy pronouncements emerge from impetuous impulses rather than considered analyses, they do tend to change on a day-to-day basis…) The article described the proposed tariffs and their potential consequences, and reported on the number of U.S. companies that were scrambling to win exemptions to them.
As of the time of the article, the Commerce Department had evidently received 8,200 exemption requests.
Let’s deconstruct this.
Assume you owned a company that relied upon imported metal to manufacture your widgets. The government moved to impose tariffs, which would increase your costs and make your widgets less competitive with the widgets manufactured in other countries. Assume further that you applied for an exemption from the new rule, based upon some tenuous argument or plea of hardship. Wouldn’t you be likely to do whatever you could to curry favor with the administration dispensing those exemptions? You’d almost certainly dig deep to make a political contribution.
“Pay to play” is, unfortunately, nothing new in American politics. Engineers and others who bid on government projects know that a history of political donations may not be enough to get them the contract, but is necessary to ensure that their bid is one that will at least be considered.
That said, unsuccessful bidders who believe that a contract has been awarded to a company that didn’t meet the statutory criteria–a donor whose bid was not “lowest and best”–can sue. And win. It happens more often than you might think.
Of course, the ability to sue and have your complaint judged fairly requires that the country’s judicial system be both impartial and competent. That’s one reason this administration’s rush to fill judicial vacancies with political cronies is so pernicious.
In places where government agencies can confer benefits at their discretion–routinely the case in autocratic regimes–and there is no legal recourse, corruption is widespread and inevitable. (See: Putin’s Russia) Quid pro quo replaces rule of law.
That’s the path America is on right now. If the GOP enablers in Congress survive the midterm elections, the prospects for turning things around will be very, very dim.