The Political aspect of the Law-Legislation Distinction

There is a law-legislation distinction in Friedrich Hayek and Carl Schmitt, in which there is an argument for the value of law in comparison to legislation. A distinction is made between law and legislation, with law to be accorded high value and legislation to be accorded a lower, and even negative value. We can call this the law over legislation claim.  The law over legislation claim with regard to law is that it states commonly accepted principles, and so is in essence a repetition, refinement and confirmation of already existing codes of rules and punishment for breaking of rules. The law over legislation claim with regard to legislation is that legislation is an essence an edict issued by whatever institution has political power. Since the rise of elected law making bodies, edicts have taken the form of laws passed by consent and can therefore be easily mistaken for law properly speaking. The term for this is legislation. This term is required because ‘laws’ passed by the majority vote of an elected assembly are increasing administrative rules, which award arbitrary power to the state to administer society. These do not describe existing codes of custom and conduct, but instead involve new rules expanding the scope of state action, and the unaccountability of action to law properly speaking. The majoritarian principle in the election to national assemblies, and then in the making of legislation by that assembly, is a deviation from the consensual basis of law, and a means for coercion of the minority, which is likely to undermine law, in the proper sense of that word. The law over legislation claim makes a distinction between: what comes from the will of the political sovereign and what comes from the shared values of a society.  A major issue here is where is that moment of law before legislation or edicts of power? Is not ‘law’ always embedded in political power? Power exercised by judges, and maybe juries, and which is relatively independent of the persons who have governmental power at that moment, but it is still a form of power. The law over legislation claim was directed against the danger of the degeneration of an apparent state of law into a state of the edicts of government, in which any edict is considered a law if it is passed by a national assembly, with some superficial adherence to principles of universality and recognisability. Some discussion of the problem can be found in those who are not adherents of the law over legislation thesis. Examples include Jürgen Habermas and Michel Foucault. For Habermas , the welfare state does tend to become an administrative state outside the real control of law and the national assembly (1986, 225; 232; 235, 241; 242; 250) though Habermas approves of egalitarian welfarism as a foundation for politics, and seeks ways of incorporating the regulation of welfare in law as a whole. For Foucault, Medieval juridification undermined the art of self government as known in antiquity (Hermeneutics of the Self, Wrong-Doing, Truth-Telling). Government of the self becomes tutelage of the Church, with regard to conscience, which itself becomes a source of ‘disciplinarity’ (Discipline and Punish), Foucault’s way of understanding the administered nature of modern life. Foucault is also far from the more conservative aspects of the law over legislation argument, though he is less associated with a a consensual welfarist egalitarian rationalist position than Habermas.

The law over legislation claim has an anti-political impulse within it, which is  that law is above politics. Legislation is held to be illegitimate, so that the law making function of any legislative assembly is restricted to law, which is apparently already in existence as what is accepted in common custom. There is not much on this account for assemblies to do, except perhaps concern themselves with refining existing law. Even that function is maybe understood as exercised  by judges who ‘discover’ law when they work out the best way to apply existing principles to new cases. This kind of account is based on a very ideal picture of law, before the legislating impulse took hold in the late nineteenth century, as the role of elected assemblies in deciding on laws, as well as holding government to account. Even on this ideal account, governmental bodies have always had a tendency to issue decrees, commands, which are based on the will of the political sovereign, rather than considerations of what law is and how it evolves in relation to cases.         Laws have to be ordered, systematise and harmonised and this is work done by sovereign bodies, therefore on the basis of political will.We can see historically that law may change dramatically as a result of invasion and forcible changes in the identity of the sovereign, what Hobbes calls ‘commonwealth by acquisition’. Law in pre-modern times had an aura of divine origins, of cosmic order and beginnings in customs assumed to have existed for time immemorial. However, there are political aspects to this. Godly origins are an ideal way of presenting the monarchy and aristocracy which conceive of themselves as godlike. Back in the 18th century Vico discussed this in the New Science, where unwritten law is associated with the Heroic Age, which is Vico’s way of referring to the aristocratic domination found in societies like the Bronze Age Mycenaean Greeks depicted by Homer. Fundamental issues of debt and property rights were the source of constant political conflict in antiquity. It is an issue long discussed with reference to the late Roman Republic and which was part of the making and execution of law in that time. This might lead us to question how far we can distinguish the making of statute laws from the exercise of political will. It is a statement of the obvious that law as something that can be enforced by the state, is made by the state and that this is a political process. Since laws constrain the state and often survive changes in the identity of those with power, there is a whole sphere of constitutional law which defines the political system, and at least to some degree law refers to widely held beliefs about what actions are so wrong they should be punished, it is inevitable that law is seen as something distinct from the commands of those in power at any one time. We should not see this as making law distinct from, and outside the political process. It is a constraint on uses of power, but also a product of power.                                The advocates of the law over legislation claim do not necessarily oppose any individual suggestion politics entering law, but their  approach is to prefer an idealised law outside the contamination of politics, and to think of law as an extension of natural, or at least deeply embedded, self organising processes which do not rest on conscious design. The idealisation aspect and the self-organising process aspects are not completely compatible. The idealisation of law assumes a monolithic unchanging nature which does not not adapt to the changeable nature of self-organising processes. Self-organising economic and social processes require frameworks of rules, which do provide some stability and predictability, but also require  changes in the nature of those frameworks as the process goes though major changes of self-organisations. Attitudes to property which put inheritable land holdings at the centre may need substantial adaptation to a world of rising and declining industrial enterprises. Changes in law has serious consequences for the beneficiaries of old laws, and creates new beneficiaries. There are inevitable struggles between these groups, who are necessarily drawn towards political ideas which happen to suit their interests. This is politics embedded deeply in law.  The law-legislation distinction is very valuable as a diagnostic tool in certain circumstances, but taken beyond that impedes an understanding of the relation between politics and law, including that way different legal forms interact with political forms.


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