We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal
—The Declaration of Independence
America’s Founding Fathers were referring to the natural law; that each of us, from the citadel of our minds, looks out upon the world with the same consciousness, and therefore have no basis upon which to believe anyone else’s life to them is any less valuable than ours is to us. From this natural law they drew the great man-made principle that all men should be equal before the law. In this they were simply echoing the great truths observed by John Locke:
Though I have said that all men by nature, are equal, I cannot be supposed to understand all sorts of equality. Age or virtue may give men a just precedency. Excellency of parts and merit may place others above the common level. Birth may subject some, and alliance or benefits others, to pay an observance to those to whom nature, gratitude or other respects may have made it due. And yet all this consists with the equality, which all men are in, in respect of jurisdiction or dominion one over another, which was the equality I there spoke of, as proper to the business in hand, being that equal right that every man hath, to his natural freedom, without being subjected to the will or authority of any other man. (Two Treatises of Government, 1689.)
No one should be above the law
The first principle of legal equality is that no one should be above the law. Even the lawmakers themselves, and those charged with executing or interpreting the law, must be subject to the same laws as the common citizen, as well as to laws governing the conduct of their office. As Albert Dicey observed:
When we speak of the ‘rule of law’ as a characteristic of our country, not only that with us no man is above the law … whatever be his rank or condition. In England … every official, from the Prime Minister down to a constable or a collector of taxes, is under the same responsibility for every act done without legal justification as any other citizen. The Reports abound with cases in which officials have been brought before the Courts, and made, in their personal capacity, liable to punishment, or to the payment of damages, for acts done in their official character but in excess of their lawful authority. (An Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution, 1885.)
No one should be singled out for persecution by the law
Equality before the law also means that the law should treat all groups equally. Thus, a law prohibiting Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Asians, Arabs, whites, academics, homosexuals, or any other group from holding public office, owning land, or conducting a particular trade would offend this principle. However, a law that bars paedophiles from teaching children, fraudsters from being trustees, children from driving cars, or epileptics from being pilots would not infringe the principle because the discrimination purports to be justified on practical considerations. It then becomes a political question as to whether the purpose is legitimate, or merely a guise for persecution of a particular group.
No one should be singled out for preferential treatment by the law
Formal equality before the law is in conflict, and, in fact, incompatible with any activity of the government deliberately aiming at material … equality of different people, and that any policy aiming directly at a substantive ideal of distributive justice must lead to the destruction of the rule of law.
—Friedrich Hayek. The Road to Serfdom, 1944.
Equality before the law requires that laws should not discriminate in favor of classes or individuals, regardless of how benevolent or compassionate the law’s intention may be. Discrimination in favor of one group is always discrimination against the remainder. Both wealth redistribution and ‘affirmative action’ grossly offend this principle, as do so-called hate crimes laws, which create an elite class of people whose murders are avenged with more ferocity than those of normal citizens. Likewise, allowing illegal aliens to remain in a country even though they are breaching the law gives special privileges to a particular group.
The terrible consequences of creating a privileged class of people, not subject to the laws that bind the rest of society, is well-illustrated in the case of trade unions. By allowing so-called peaceful picketing, which permits physical intimidation, and by exempting trade unions from liability in tort for deliberate economic damage—effectively revoking the property rights of those whom unions choose to attack—trade unions have been imbued with a patrician-like arrogance. This leads not just to contempt for the common man, who is subject to the laws, but also to a general contempt for all law—even laws that are supposed to bind the patricians.
The abuses associated with trade unions are found throughout history whenever a group of people, in or out of government, is not subject to the level of accountability that applies to the rest of the population. Whenever decemviri, dictators, triumviri, soldiers, police or presidents have wielded emergency powers, placing themselves above the law, lawlessness and gross violations of individual rights have always followed.