U.S. Government – Separation of Powers

America was governed under the Articles of Confederation from 1781 to 1789. Unable to redress the problem of “majority tyranny”, the Articles were abandoned in  favor of the Constitution, which created a “more perfect union“.

The Separation of Powers

Separation of powers is the central structural feature of the United States Constitution. The division of power among the three branches – legislative, executive, and judicial – is necessitated because human beings are imperfect. The imperfection of human nature means that well-structured government is necessary, though not sufficient, to prevent tyranny.

The United States Constitution is structurally designed in part to prevent tyranny. Separation of powers is the means by which power is divided and its accumulation in the hands of any single entity denied.

In order for separation of powers to work, each branch of government must have the “constitutional means” to resist the encroachment of the other branches. This is what today we call “checks and balances“.

In addition to institutional checks and balances, there exist also the “personal motives” of people that will lead them to resist the encroachment of the other branches.

Human nature is constant across the ages, and human beings are naturally ambitious. Instead of ignoring or attempting to suppress ambition, the Framers of the Constitution sought to channel it through the Constitution, so that it might serve the casue of liberty and justice rather than threaten it.

The Framers understood that human nature has noble characteristics that are essential to self-government, but also that it contains baser features, for which government must account. The Constitutions’s structural separation of powers recognizes this truth, and in preventing tyranny makes self-government possible.

The spearation of powers helps to ensure good government at the same time it guards against tyranny.

Independent in function but coordinated in the pursuit of justice, the three branches of government must each have enough power to resist the encroachment of the others, and yet not so much that the liberty of the people is lost.

A political regime has three dimensions: the ruling institutions, the rulers, and the way of life of the people. In America, the rulers – the people themselves – and their ruling institutions – staffed by the people’s representatives – aim at securing the Creator – endowed natural rights of all citizens. The Framers did this in wo ways. “Vertically”… considered, our rulling institutions are defined by federalism, or the division of power between the national, state, and local governments. “Horizontally”… considered, the ruling institutions of the federal government itself are separated and co-equal.

In the American regime, the Constitution is the “supreme law of the land“.

No one branch is superior to it; all three branches have a duty to abode by it. While each of the three branches plays a unique role in the passage, execution, and interpretation of laws, all of the branches must work together in the governing process.

The legislative branch is closest to the people. It is also the branch in which the danger of majority tyranny lurks.

The passions of the people are reflected most in the House of Representatives, where the members are elected for terms of two years. The Senate, with its six year terms, was designed to be a more stable legislative presence than the House.

The defining characteeristic of the executive branch is “energy.” The president can and must act swiftly and decisively to deal with foreign threats and to enforce the law, and can also provide a check on legislative tyranny through the veto.

Members of the judiciary branch, must exercise judgment in particular cases to secure individual rights. Through “judicial review”, the judiciary is given the authority to strike down laws that are contrary to the Constitution. But judicial review is not judicial supremacy; even the Supreme Court must rely upon the other branches once it has rendered judgment.

The checks that each branch can exercise against the encroachment o the others ultimately protect the liberties of the people. The separation of powers promotes justice and good government by having each branch perform its proper function. This institutional design allows the sovereign people to observe and to know which branch is responsible for which actions in order to hold each to account. The sense of mutual responsibility built into the separation of powers is a reflection of the moral and civic responsibility all Americans share.

This important point is missed by the Supreme Court’s misinterpretation, repeated numerous times since 1947, of Thomas Jefferson’s “wall of separation between church and state” metaphor.

At the heart of the American constitutional crisis of the mid-nineteenth century stood the moral, social, and political evil of slavery. At stake in this crisis was the future of republican self-government.

Abraham Lincoln saw the dilemma facing the nation as the “crisis of a house divided”. For Lincoln, “popular sovereignty” was an abandonment of moral principle.

Man does not have a moral right to choose a moral wrong…Self-government cannot mean ruling other human beings without their consent…no matter what any current issues may be presented to be “for the best interest of the people“.

Source: Hillsdale College

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