Government Can Easily Exist Without Law, But Law Cannot Exist Without Government

Bertrand Russell? Leo Rosten? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: The relationship between government and law can be deftly summarized with two contrasting statements:

  • Government can exist without law(s).
  • Law(s) cannot exist without government.

These dual notions have been attributed to the famous British mathematician and social critic Bertrand Russell. Would you please help me to find a citation?

Quote Investigator: In 1950 Bertrand Russell published a collection titled “Unpopular Essays”. The quotation appeared in the essay “Ideas That Have Helped Mankind”. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Government can easily exist without law, but law cannot exist without government—a fact which was forgotten by those who framed the League of Nations and the Kellogg Pact. Government may be defined as a concentration of the collective forces of a community in a certain organization which, in virtue of this concentration, is able to control individual citizens and to resist pressure from foreign states.

The elegance of the statement stems from the repetition of the key words “government” and “law” in transposed order. Variant statements attributed to Russell have entered circulation over time. The word “law” is sometimes replaced by “laws”. This replacement occurs for either one or both instances of “law”.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The first part of Russell’s remark is controversial. Many commentators have expressed the opposite viewpoint. For example, in 1803 pastor Sylvester Sage addressed the House of Representatives of the State of Vermont, and his sermon included the following passage: 2

No government can exist without laws. Laws, without annexed penalties are but a dead letter.

The second part of Russell’s remark is widely accepted. For example, in 1898 a Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania newspaper printed a lecture by Professor T. J. Deveney containing the following: 3

Man’s moral sense teaches him what is right and what is wrong, and he is enabled to understand why laws are right. Law, however, cannot exist without government. There must be some supreme power to dictate the law and administer it, and hence arises government.

In 1950 Bertrand Russell published a book containing the quotation as mentioned previously.

In 1970 “The International Thesaurus of Quotations” compiled by Rhoda Thomas Tripp included an entry for the saying: 4

Government can easily exist without law, but law cannot exist without government.
Bertrand Russell, “Ideas That Have Helped Mankind,” Unpopular Essays (1950).

In 1989 a variant using “laws” instead of “law” appeared in “Webster’s New World Best Book of Aphorisms”: 5

Government can easily exist without laws, but laws cannot exist without government.
—Bertrand Russell

In 1996 “Leo Rosten’s Carnival of Wit” printed another variant using “law” and “laws”: 6

Government can easily exist without laws, but law cannot exist without government. —Bertrand Russell

In conclusion, Bertrand Russell deserves credit for this aphorism based on the 1950 citation. Fragments appeared earlier, but it was Russell who cleverly combined two contrasting phrases.

Image Notes: Public domain depiction of the transcription of the reverse side of the Hammurabi tablet from the British Museum published in 1905.

(Great thanks to Arendse whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1950, Unpopular Essays by Bertrand Russell, Chapter 9: Ideas That Have Helped Mankind, Start Page 124, Quote Page 140, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified with scans)
  2. 1803, A Sermon Delivered Before His Excellency The Governor, The Honorable Council, and House of Representatives of the State of Vermont on the Day of the Anniversary Election, October 13th, 1803, By Sylvester Sage (Pastor of the First Church in Westminster), An Election Sermon, Start Page 1, Quote Page 11, Printed by Alden Spooner, Windsor, Vermont. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1898 November 2, Wilkes-Barre Record, Lecture On Geography: Another in the Series by Professor Deveney in Father Bustin’s School, Quote Page 5, Column 2, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1970, The International Thesaurus of Quotations, Compiled by Rhoda Thomas Tripp, Topic: Law and Lawyers, Quote Page 345, Column 2, Thomas Y. Crowell, New York. (Verified with scans)
  5. 1989, Webster’s New World Best Book of Aphorisms by Auriel Douglas and Michael Strumpf, Topic: Laws, Quote Page 266, Arco Publishing: A Division of Simon & Schuster, New York. (Verified with scans)
  6. 1996 (1994 Copyright), Leo Rosten’s Carnival of Wit From Aristotle to Woody Allen, Compiled by Leo Rosten, Topic: Law, Quote Page 274, Plume: Penguin Books, New York. (Verified with scans)