Doug Smith: Checks and Balances

24 Feb

doug and mark 1

Doug Smith:  Free State Patriot history and society editor


Civics has lost its way.

Once we taught our potential citizens, both immigrants, and high school students, who would, we hoped, one day be productive and functional citizens and part of our society.  Today, however, we are an increasingly less civil society, and that we do not adequately teach what once was called “Civics”.  Both are mistakes.

It is important to understand the rules and framework by which our society functions, so that we can be good and functional citizens of that society. Equally, it is important that we teach civil behavior and discourse. There were both norms of behavior that most of us would never dream of violating, and an understanding of the norms and conventions of how our society, and republic, operates.

This brings me to a part of high school civics that was once taught to every student, or potential citizen, the concept of checks and balances.

Thanks, “Sarge” Tom Gibbs, for teaching me these lessons.

The idea among our Framers was that for every seat of power, there was another to balance their authority, and, through accountability, to hold them in check. It is telling that they saw the need for these protections. They understood, as we must understand, that our government does not govern angels, and hence must have laws and power, but neither is it made of angels, and thus must have checks and balances. It is a difficult and intoxicating thing to wield power over others.

Our founders grew to adulthood under a system based on the rights of kings, delegated, and unchecked in Royal Governors, the nobility, and the gentry of England. Their “rights” were merely privileges, granted to them as subjects of the king. Or revoked, by his whim.

The lawmaker who spends, for the first time, more money than he has ever seen, will get a certain thrill from the experience. In time, he can become jaded, and far too ready to spend other people’s money. Then we have a problem.

The late Senator Everett Dirksen said, “A billion dollars here, a billion dollars there, and next thing you know you are talking about some real money.” I’m not sure how much humor was intended, but you see the problem? A billion dollars IS a lot of money. Unless you never have to pay for as much as a cup of coffee, then money loses its reality to you and becomes simply a way to exercise power.

Now when Congress, or a Governor, spends a billion dollars, they do not plan to write a check. They plan for you and I to write fewer checks: for food, for gas, for homes. We will be the ones to do without, so we are responsible when they exercise authority. Now, when one has authority without responsibility, that is a recipe for disaster. Without accountability.

And that is where the Checks and Balances come in.


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