Why Is the Separation of Powers Vital To the Prevention of Tyranny
This week, we engage in Week 4 of Constitution 101, “The Separation of Powers: Preventing Tyranny.”
The Founders were astute observers of human nature. As such, they did not view government as a necessary evil, but rather saw a well-constructed government as a good. Without government, individuals will violate the rights of others. However, since government is made up of human beings with all of their flaws and virtues, this also meant that if left unconstrained, those who govern would use the power of government to violate the rights of others. Their solution: an elegantly structured separation of powers.
Here is the overview of the lecture by Kevin Portteus, assistant professor of politics at Hillsdale College.
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.
During the 1780s, most states had constitutions that formally divided the government’s power, yet in practice the legislatures dominated. The state constitutions required separation of powers in theory, but failed to deliver it in reality. As a result, the constitutions were little more than what Publius called “parchment barriers.”
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, according to Publius, and human beings are naturally ambitious. Instead of ignoring or attempting to suppress ambition, the Framers sought to channel it through the Constitution, so that it might serve the cause 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 Constitution’s structural separation of powers recognizes this truth, and in preventing tyranny makes self-government possible.
- How would you define “tyranny”?
- Why is the separation of powers vital to the prevention of tyranny?
- What is the background assumption about human nature that leads to a preference for a separation of powers? How does that contrast to the assumption of both the communisists and the Nazis?
- Many complain of partisan divide and gridlock in the Federal government. What do you think of this state of affairs?
- How should we view the human nature of those who seek elected office and their most ardent supporters?
- How has our common sense about the trust we should place in those in positions of political power changed since the time of the Founders?
- What do you think about President Obama’s State of the Union Address in light of Professor Portteus’ lecture?
- What new actions do you see you can take after thinking more clearly about human nature and the need for government?
- What does our conversation about the separation of powers say about the art of living in liberty?