A Balancing Act
The executive [President] ...holds the sword...The legislative [Congress]...commands the purse...The judiciary...has no influence over either the sword or the purse...can take no active resolution whatever...liberty can have nothing to fear from the judiciary alone, [as usurpers] but would have every thing to fear from its union with either of the other departments..." [in usurping power]
The Federalist (no.78, by Alexander Hamilton)
Do you know why a three-legged stool never wobbles? Do you know why roof trusses are made up of lots of triangles? Do you know why we have three branches of government?
These questions may seem unrelated, but they're not.
A three-legged stool never wobbles because, mathematically, it takes three points to define a plane. With four legs, three will be in one plane but the fourth might be in another and so the stool wobbles.
Roof trusses are made up of triangles because the triangle is the most stable (or strongest) geometric shape— it is the only shape that cannot be altered without changing the length of at least one of the sides. If you imagine a square where the corners are all able to rotate, you can push the square to one side or the other and change its shape to a parallelogram. You can take a five-sided pentagon and make it look like the outline of a house. You can take a circle and "squish" it to look like an oval. But you cannot change the shape of a triangle unless you change the length of at least one of its legs.
If you look around at nature, you'll see even more examples of the strength and stability of the number 3. Three primary colors (red, blue, yellow). Three dimensions to any physical object (length, width, height). Three tenses (past, present, future). Three types of numbers (positive, negative, zero). Three forms of existence (solid, liquid, gas).
What does all this have to do with three branches of government, the separation of powers, and the system of checks and balances?
Quite a lot.
While the examples above are physical in nature and appear to pertain more to engineering than to political philosophy, they help illustrate the importance of our three branches of government, and provide an excellent visual illustration of how the political concepts serve to strengthen and support our system of government in much the same way triangles and tripods provide strength to structures in the physical world.
The underlying basis for the separation of powers in government can be found as far back in human history as Aristotle, but the most significant contributions to this concept were made and defined by Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, a French political thinker who was a contemporary of our Founding Fathers. Simply put, this principle states that;
“the powers of a sovereign government should be split between two or more strongly independent entities in order to prevent any one person or group from gaining too much power”.
"To prevent this abuse, it is necessary from the nature of things that one power should be a check on another."
Our founding fathers, all well educated men and very familiar with the political thinkers of the day, took a page or two from the writings of Montesquieu and divided the powers of government into three branches - the legislative (Congress), executive (office of the President), and the judicial (the Supreme Court). Each branch had distinct areas of responsibility, and a role defined to help preserve the checks
(the ability, right, and responsibility of each power to monitor the activities of the other(s))
(the ability of each entity to use its authority to limit the powers of the others, whether in general scope or in particular cases)
between the other two branches.
In essence, the three branches of government provided the same type of stability to government that the legs of a three-legged stool provide, with the checks and balances serving as the glue holding it all together. Each branch established a three-fold purpose with the following capabilities:
1. To fulfill constitutionally determined roles (law maker, law executor and law interpreter).
2. To insure that the other two branches did not overstep constitutionally determined roles.
3. To protect the rights of the citizens as individuals from both the government and the rule of the majority.
The strength and importance of this structure cannot be underestimated. To continue the example of the stool, if one leg is removed or compromised, the stool becomes unstable. The same thing happens with a government. Our founding fathers knew this, and knew also that the separation of powers was critical to not only maintain the fairness of government, but also to prevent the formation of a tyranny. They said as much, in fact:
The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.
- James Madison, Federalist Papers, Number 47
The "accumulation of all powers" that James Madison warns of cannot occur if we maintain the checks and balances in our system. But when we start removing them, we take the first steps down the road to tyranny. This has become very evident with the virtual elimination of another important check: our multi-party electoral system.
Prior to the Civil War, the US had elected presidents who were members of the Democratic-Republican, Federalist, Whig, Democratic and Republican parties. George Washington had no party affiliation, making him the only "independent" elected to the presidency. The many political parties made it extremely difficult for any one party to control both houses of Congress and the White House, and through the appointment process for federal judges, the Judiciary.
But every president since the Civil War has been a member of either the Republican or Democratic Party. It's taken almost 140 years, but we now are essentially a two party system. While not impossible, it is now extremely difficult for anyone who is not a member of either of these parties to win election, especially at the national level. This is evidenced by the fact that out of the more than 500 members of the 109th Congress, there are a total of two independent candidates and none for the more than 40 political parties that officially exist within the US.
This loss of a truly viable third party has slowly been causing a polarization in this country and since the last election, when control of two branches of the government fell to the same political party, that polarization has become even more pronounced. "If you're not with us, you're against us" is the attitude on both sides of the fence. This allows little room for compromise and without compromise, government will either eventually grind to a halt, or the one party will take over completely by removing the remaining checks and balances, in which case they will have completed the "accumulation of powers" and the journey to tyranny will be complete.
We saw in the first two Characteristics how the Bill of Rights protects every individual's unalienable rights from being trampled by the rule of the majority. And the checks and balances in our political system were designed as additional safeguards to protect unalienable rights from being disregarded by the government. To support the removal of any of these checks and balances is to invite and even condone the violation of the US Constitution. In a very real sense, alteration of the checks and balances serves to weaken the 'glue' that holds the tripod together. A True US Patriot decries the undermining of any of the checks and balances in our political process, especially when such is touted as a necessity to ensure the safety of the citizenry against "our enemies." As Ben Franklin once said;
They who would give up an essential liberty for temporary security, deserve neither liberty or security.