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Checks and Balances

Ron Wolff: Government is simply the institutionalization over time of the collective will of the people at any given moment, established with at least one essential objective in mind: the prevention of the inevitable chaos that would result in its absence.
declaration of independence

The Balance of Power Between People and Government

Every reader of my articles -- by definition, educated and intelligent! -- is familiar with the internal checks and balances written into our Constitution, to ensure that no one of the three branches of government amasses excess control.

I maintain that we have not given sufficient thought to that other important balance -- the one between the people and their government.

Now, in order to argue that any sort of balance of power should exist between any two entities, it is necessary to assume or demonstrate that both of those entities have a rightful place in the world order. If either entity did not, then no balance of power would be necessary, or perhaps even desirable.

Let's take first the case of the people. That's only fair, since people -- individuals -- are the most essential building block of society. To claim that they should not have political power (in extreme cases, including the power to overthrow the government) would be ludicrous and contrary to the spirit of the Declaration of Independence. It would also, as a practical matter, condone despotism, a force that has been responsible for many mega-tragedies in the world -- since individual dictators frequently find allegedly legal ways, through established governments, to compel their will on subjugated (although sometimes willing) people.

Secondly, let's examine government. At least in theory, it is simply the institutionalization over time of the collective will of the people at any given moment, established with at least one essential objective in mind: the prevention of the inevitable chaos that would result in its absence.

The Founders clearly understood this. Having declared independence from Great Britain, did they move toward anarchy (not used in a pejorative sense) and deliberately set out to organize no government in its place? Quite to the contrary. They recognized a purpose for government in the Declaration of Independence. When the Articles of Confederation proved to be too weak to hold the original colonies together, they scrapped it and wrote the Constitution -- a document generally recognized as providing a stronger central government than its predecessor. To my knowledge, no historian or political scientist (or even Tea Party activist) is today reviling President George Washington for calling up the militia in 1794 to enforce the laws of the United States when a group of people (I use that word deliberately) in western Pennsylvania decided they didn't want to abide by an excise tax on whiskey that had been duly adopted by the established government.

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It appears, then, that people and government should share power, the former retaining the ultimate right to rebel if the latter exceeds the boundaries of common sense and humanity, and the latter retaining the right to impose democratically established rules and regulations on its citizens in an attempt to avoid chaos and to, umm, "establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity." (Did any of those words appear by accident? I doubt it.)

But I see that the word "impose" may be a red flag to some, perhaps even a call to arms. Should the government have more than the power to persuade? Is it really necessary to hand over our guns (figuratively, of course) and grant the collective will authority over individual behavior? Unfortunately, human nature being what it is...yes. If the carelessness (and probably criminal negligence) of BP fails to convince you of that, exemplifying as it does the widespread tendency of people (and corporations) to operate ONLY in what they perceive as their own best short-term interests (which ironically, in our complex society, is frequently also detrimental to their best long-term interests and those of people in general not associated with their special causes), then possibly nothing will.

The Founders were way ahead of us, as usual. Witness Alexander Hamilton in Federalist #15: "Why has government been instituted at all? Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice without constraint."

Wisely, there are constraints on that constraint. Constitutional Amendment #9 says that "The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people." And Amendment #10 reserves powers "not delegated to the United States by the the States respectively, or to the people." The many will always prevail over the few, using either ballots or bullets, if and when the few perform sufficiently egregious acts, regardless of whether such acts are condoned by allegedly legitimate government.

Today -- every day -- the inevitable irony unfolds in a dynamic and complex nation, home to well over 300 million people, who have very little alternative but to trust a collective authority -- which itself is governed and implemented by fallible human beings -- to safeguard their individual rights and their personal well-being (at least in the physical sense of that term). All things considered -- although some improvements are definitely desirable -- maybe it's not working out all that badly. So far.

Ron Wolff

Ron Wolff

Ronald Wolff publishes the blog Musings from Claremont, where this article first appeared. Republished with permission.