Tag Archives: checks and balances

Doug Smith: Checks and Balances: Part 2

4 Mar

doug 2

Doug Smith:  Free State Patriot history and social editor


checks and balances

Now these founders of ours were educated men, and as such, very aware of the recent history in England of the Stuarts, Civil War, and disquiet over the rule of Kings. It must surely have occurred to them that had Charles I disarmed his subjects early on, he might have kept his throne, and, not incidentally, his head. But the outlook for the British people would have been very different, and worse.

There are 3 joined concepts that are not talked about nearly enough, to our detriment. They are authority, responsibility, and accountability.  Authority means I have the power to achieve my will. Responsibly means that the results of my actions are my property. And accountability means that I reap what I sow, for good or ill.

Now if I have authority without the other 2, I can do pretty much whatever I want, and there is nothing to stop me from abusing my power to settle grudges or take what I want. Would you care to come before the court of Judge Roy Bean? Or, for that matter, before Henry VIII. Ask Anne Boleyn about authority without accountability. It’s an easy way to lose one’s head. (Sorry, Anne.) Power without checks has led to some pretty awful behaviors.

Responsibility alone is a pretty crappy deal as well. Ask Captain Charles McVay. The CO of the Cruiser USS Indianapolis, he was sent into the South Pacific on a top-secret mission. Denied information on Japanese Submarines in his Op Area, and refused his Destroyer escort, and having his SOS ignored, and not being reported as overdue for 4 days due to the top-secret nature of his mission, he had the misfortune to lose his ship, and hundreds of his crew to shark attacks. The safety of the Indy was his responsibility, but he was shackled. He was the only CO in WW2 to be Court Martialed for losing his ship in combat. He committed suicide in 1968.

As for accountability without the other 2, that was beautifully summed up by Charles Dickens in Oliver Twist: Oliver Twist:

Mr. Brownlow: The law assumes that your wife acts under your direction.
Mr. Bumble: If the law supposes that, then the law is a ass, a idiot! If that’s the eye of the lawthen the law is a bachelor.

Married men will smile, hoping their wives do not notice. But the point is made: if you hold me accountable for that which I cannot control, then you are a ass, a idiot.

Which brings us back to Checks and Balances.  It is the common sense and wisdom earned through conflict and suffering that inspired the founders to build a system of laws and governance in which, to the best degree they could, authority was check, and balanced with responsibility and accountability.

The system works well, when it works. It has had some appalling failures. The President has executive authority to enforce and carry out laws. If he does not do so, or if the people find that the laws, once enforced are not palatable, they can seek redress through the courts, which may rule on their Constitutionality, or through the Congress, which may repeal or enact new laws.

The repeal of Prohibition was a fine example of checks and balances correcting poorly thought out unintended consequences. Carrie Nation hated liquor, but never imagined that the pressure to enact a national prohibition would create Al Capone.

A fine example of the failures is the many laws Congress passes on the rest of us, while exempting themselves. For example, if I know my company is about to do something that will likely push its stock price up, I’m forbidden by law from acting on that knowledge for a certain period. It is called insider trading, and is considered unfair advantage, and Congress has made it illegal.

Except, of course, for Congress. A Congressman or Senator may buy up stock in a company in the morning, then vote to give them a billion-dollar government contract in the afternoon. If you or I did such a thing, we would join Michael Milken or Bernie Madoff in prison. When Harry Reid did it, he became wealthy.

And this brings me back to my premise: we need a return to understanding Civics, and the basis of our society. Everyone, not just the history buffs, need to be outraged and abuses and violations of our Constitutional laws. But we can’t if we have no idea what they are. And that is how many entrenched in the halls of power get away with it. To our detriment.

The design of the founders was that the 3 branches, co-equal, would balance total power in any one, and each would have the power to check the excesses of the other. Congress may pass laws, which the courts may strike down and unconstitutional. Congress, in turn, may redefine the area of the Courts’ concern. The President may pressure Congress for laws he desires and must enforce the laws that are passed. He may veto bills, but Congress may overturn his veto. And ultimately, we, the people, carry the awesome responsibility of the vote. If we continue scoundrels in office because they are the party of our daddy, or our union, or our buddies, we will deserve the rule of scoundrels which plagues us.

Understanding our laws and the basis of our society also pushes us toward certain norms of behavior, simply because “it just is not done”.  When I was in school, I had guns. I had a gun and could shoot it accurately by the time I was 12. I also got angry at people. Occasionally, that erupted into us rolling on the ground bashing each other’s faces. (You should have seen the other guy) It resulted in some responsibility and accountability (guard your mouth, lest at some point you inspire someone to bash it. Ah, lesson learned.) It never occurred to me, or to any of us, that the solution was to run home and get a rifle. It simply was not done. Nor did we dare to hit a girl. Certainly, not if anyone could see. It just was not done. And we knew, would not be tolerated. In our rush to tolerance, we seem to have forgotten that there are things we ought not to tolerate.

Now, like government checks and balances, norms are not perfect, and surely you can imagine exceptions. But like our government, it works better than most, and learning about it, and those norms, is a good first step toward more civil society. Eliminating the checks of the people on our elected leaders, and the checks of disapproval and shame on our fellows is a path toward chaos.

Can we fix all this? I don’t know. Can we try? Surely. Is it worth it?

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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