Biden’s Rules-Based Order

On March 26, in a speech in Poland, President Biden attempted to be inspiring, and as usual when he does that, he emitted string after string of platitudes.  It was the kind of thing that political speechwriters create in their sleep.  But Americans should be careful not to nod off.  Clichés can be very dangerous, just because they are clichés—the stuff that everyone is supposed to know and believe.

I invite your attention to the passage of Biden’s speech in which he tried to say how a free society differs from an unfree one.  He claimed that at some time in the mythic past

we emerged anew in the great battle for freedom. A battle between democracy and autocracy. Between liberty and repression. Between a rules-based order and one governed by brute force. In this battle, we need to be clear-eyed. This battle will not be won in days or months either. We need to steel ourselves of [sic] a long fight ahead.

And so on.  But notice how the synonyms line up.  The synonyms for lack of freedom are autocracy, repression, and “brute force”; the synonyms for freedom are democracy, liberty, and “a rules-based order.”

Now, hold on.  In our world, the most brutally forceful regimes happen to be rules-based orders, regimes that are filled with rules.  Chock-full of rules.  And freedom and liberty are so far from being synonymous with “rules” that their very definition is, well, the absence of restraints, commands, and rules.  Freedom is the ability to do what you want, not the obligation to follow somebody’s rule.

The signers of the Declaration of Independence had no idea that rules were the foundation of the “new order of the ages” they were creating. Their idea was a rights-based society.  The document says that clearly.  It says that all men “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” and that “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.”  So rights come first, last, and all the time.  Rules and governments, if you insist on having them, are justified only in support of rights.

With this in mind, we can see that almost all of the real order that exists in the world—the order we see in families, businesses, churches, and social organizations of every kind—results from free people working together with respect for one another’s rights.  This is the spontaneous order of which great economists have written.  And we can see that almost all of the inconvenience, poverty, distress, and terror in the world are created by people who have a libido for imposing rules. Hitler and Stalin were deeply attached to rules and rules-based order.  And so are the bureaucratic tyrants who have destroyed so much of the world during the past two years of the New Order of Covid.

If there were anything that could make Biden’s idea about freedom and rules look even worse, it would be the reflection that his speech, like his presidency, was the product of vague amorphous movements among vague amorphous organs of the governing class.  The speech says what the members of the governing class believe, what they believe so deeply and automatically that to them his daringly false statements about the relation of liberty to order are just random clichés, mere throw-away lines.  Yet these are the clichés by which the rest of us are supposed to order our lives.

Stephen Cox is Distinguished Professor of Literature, Emeritus, at the University of California, San Diego.  He is the author of many books and is the editor of Liberty magazine, available at