Guest Essayist: Andrew Langer
Mandate or Law: The American Founders on Warning Against Arbitrary, Tyrannical Dictates Diluting Rule of Law


Essay Read by Constituting America Founder, Actress Janine Turner


In the realm of United States governance, the terms “mandate” and “law” frequently arise, often creating confusion due to their seemingly overlapping meanings. Both play essential roles in shaping the country’s legal and political landscape, yet they are distinctly different in nature and application—and both must be understood within the context of due process of law, both substantive and procedural.

A law, as per the United States Constitution, is a rule established by the government that dictates the actions of its people. It’s a formal norm that has been approved by a legislative body and, if necessary, signed into effect by the executive branch. Laws are codified in written form and are enforceable by the judiciary. In the United States, federal laws apply to all states and territories, while state laws apply only within their respective jurisdictions.

On the other hand, a mandate in the context of U.S. governance often refers to a policy or requirement that a higher level of government imposes on a lower level. For instance, federal mandates require states or localities to perform certain actions, often under the threat of financial or legal penalties. These mandates may come in various forms, including conditions for receiving federal grants, requirements imposed as a part of federal civil rights laws, or conditions for participating in voluntary federal programs.

Unlike laws, mandates do not necessarily have to go through the same rigorous legislative process. Some mandates are issued by federal agencies as regulations, under the authority granted to them by Congress. Others are issued directly by the executive branch, such as through executive orders.

While a law is a directive that comes with its own enforcement mechanism, a mandate is a requirement that may or may not come with specific penalties for non-compliance. Compliance with a mandate is often tied to the receipt of federal funds. For example, states may be required to comply with certain federal mandates to receive funding for highway construction or education.

In the dynamic landscape of American politics and law, it is essential to note that the boundary between mandates and laws can sometimes blur. As such, ongoing vigilance and discourse are required to ensure the appropriate balance—especially given how both laws and mandates can impact “true” law—which can be viewed within the context of the 5th and 14th Amendments’ guarantees of due process for all citizens,

The founding of the United States was a grand experiment, the creation of a republic aimed at securing the rights and liberties of its citizens. Central to this vision was the rule of law, which the Founders intended as a safeguard against arbitrary and tyrannical rule. The United States Constitution thus enshrines due process as an essential component of legal justice, a bulwark against any effort to dilute the power and relevance of law and order. The twin concepts of substantive and procedural due process, while less known to the general public, are pivotal elements of the due process doctrine and serve as vital tools in safeguarding individual liberties.

Before delving into the importance of both substantive and procedural due process, it is crucial to understand the distinction between the two.

Substantive due process is a doctrine that protects citizens from government actions that could interfere with fundamental rights or liberties. It requires the government to justify any intrusion into personal and economic freedoms with a sufficient and compelling state interest. For instance, the right to privacy and the freedom of speech are protected under this doctrine, and any governmental attempt to restrict these rights must meet a rigorous standard of scrutiny.

Procedural due process, on the other hand, is concerned with the fairness of how a law is applied or a decision is made. It safeguards individuals from arbitrary deprivation of life, liberty, or property by ensuring they receive a fair process, which typically involves notice and an opportunity to be heard. Procedural due process thus protects against the abuse of power, ensuring that the rule of law is upheld even when the government takes necessary actions.

The Founding Fathers were acutely aware of the danger posed by arbitrary laws and mandates that had the force of law but lacked the due process of law. They had experienced firsthand the arbitrary rule of a distant monarch and were determined to construct a system of government that would prevent such abuses.

Substantive due process plays an indispensable role in upholding this vision. By requiring the government to justify any infringement on fundamental rights, it ensures that laws and regulations do not arbitrarily or unjustly infringe on individual liberties. This doctrine serves as a shield, protecting citizens from arbitrary laws that could unduly limit their freedoms.

Procedural due process, meanwhile, acts as a sword, enabling citizens to challenge any governmental actions they believe infringe on their rights. By providing a fair and transparent process for reviewing governmental actions, it ensures that citizens have a meaningful opportunity to contest any perceived injustices.

Timothy Sandefur, a legal scholar, has made significant contributions to the understanding of the phrase “due process of law” in the United States Constitution, specifically emphasizing the importance of the term “of law.” He has argued that “due process of law” is not just about the process itself, but also about the substance of the laws that govern that process, a concept commonly known as substantive due process.

One of the key elements of Sandefur’s argument is the idea that “due process of law” should not be understood as merely a procedural guarantee. Rather, it also provides substantive guarantees against “unfairness.” This understanding is rooted in a deeper interpretation of the Constitution, not limited to the literal wording of the document but also considering its structure, ideas, and history. According to Sandefur, the Constitution’s promise that “no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law” implies not only that the government must adhere to certain procedures when imposing a deprivation, but also that some acts are inherently off-limits for the government, regardless of the procedures used to implement them​.

Sandefur also discusses the concept of law in this context. He explains that law is the use of government’s coercive powers in service of a general principle of the public good, and it is the opposite of arbitrariness. The law should not be a self-serving tool of those in power. Therefore, the “of law” in “due process of law” ensures that the government’s actions are guided by lawful principles and not by arbitrary or self-serving motives. A lawful government is characterized by general rules that benefit all, rather than specific commands or actions that only benefit those in power. This principle is a fundamental part of due process of law, guaranteeing citizens protection under the general rules that govern society​. In Sandefur’s view, due process of law means that the government may not limit our freedom without good reason. What constitutes a “good reason” is determined by reference to political and legal principles, not merely by legislative whims or self-interest. This view reflects the inherent overlap of “procedure” and “substance” in the understanding of due process of law. To be treated lawfully means to be treated in accordance with general, public principles (substantive) and through established procedures (procedural). Sandefur uses the examples of a vetoed tax bill and a bill establishing an official religion to illustrate the concept of substantive due process. In both cases, even if the procedural steps have been followed, the substantive aspect of the law can make it invalid. The same logic, according to Sandefur, applies to implicit or inherent limits on government power. If the legislature passes a statute that it lacks the authority to make, that statute cannot be considered law, and enforcing it would violate the citizen’s right not to be deprived of life, liberty, or property except by due process of law​​.

In the end, regardless of whether the government is enforcing a law derived from legislation, or a mandate derived from some other government action, the rights to due process must be respected.  Anything short of that respect does serve to dilute “true law” and undermines the protection of the liberty of the people.

Andrew Langer is President of the Institute for Liberty, as well as Chairman and Founder of the Institute for Regulatory Analysis and Engagement. IFL is a non-profit advocacy organization focused on advancing free-market and limited government principles into public policy at all levels. IRAE is a non-profit academic and activist organization whose mission is to examine regulations and regulatory proposals, assess their economic and societal impacts, and offer expert commentary in order to create better public policies. Andrew has been involved in free-market and limited-government causes for more than 25 years, has testified before Congress nearly two dozen times, spoken to audiences across the United States, and has taught at the collegiate level.

A globally-recognized expert on the impact of regulation on business, Andrew is regularly called on to offer innovative solutions to the challenges of squaring public policy priorities with the impact and efficacy of those policies, as well as their unintended consequences. Prior to becoming President of IFL and founding IRAE, he was the principal regulatory affairs lobbyist for the National Federation of Independent Business, the nation’s largest small business association. As President of the Institute for Liberty, he became recognized as an expert on the Constitution, especially issues surrounding private property rights, free speech, abuse of power, and the concentration of power in the federal executive branch.

Andrew has had an extensive career in media—having appeared on television programs around the world. From 2017 to 2021, he hosted a highly-rated weekly program on WBAL NewsRadio 1090 in Baltimore (as well as serving as their principal fill-in host from 2011 until 2021), and has filled in for both nationally-syndicated and satellite radio programs. He also created and hosted several different podcasts—currently hosting Andrew and Jerry Save The World, with long-time colleague, Jerry Rogers.

He holds a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from Troy University and his degree from William & Mary is in International Relations.

Click here for First Principles of the American Founding 90-Day Study Schedule.
Click here to receive our Daily 90-Day Study Essay emailed directly to your inbox.

0 replies

Join the discussion! Post your comments below.

Your feedback and insights are welcome.
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *