MonoRealism Philosophy Site

Governing Principles

Part B: Divided We Stand

One of the major and most effective principles underpinning Western republics is the separation of powers.

As noted in Part A, the problem of government is that it has a monopoly on physical force. The separation of powers fractures the monopoly: dividing the government into multiple centres of power that act as checks and balances for each other. Primarily, these are the Executive (the President or Prime Minister and their cabinet, who set directions and policies), the Legislature (the house(s) of parliament, who enact laws) and the Judiciary (the judges, who apply, interpret and test the laws). Even in countries like Australia and the UK where the separation between Legislature and Executive is blurred (the Executive is part of the Legislature), the two remain functionally distinct (as illustrated on the one side by the much greater power held by the PM and his ministers compared to the average backbencher, and on the other by the potential for spills, backbench revolts and votes of no confidence).

The beauty of this separation of powers is that it sets up checks and balances that are maintained not only by the best officials (whose goal is the protection of liberty, and who therefore oppose encroachments on principle) but by the worst (whose goal is personal power, and who therefore jealously guard their patch, thus resisting increases in the power of the others).

While the separation of powers refers to the three main branches at the top of government, the underlying principle of stability through checks and balances has other important ramifications. Indeed, it starts at the bottom. James Madison, one of the US founding fathers, recognised that an important defence against particular interest groups gaining the power to violate the rights of others, was the very number and diversity of such groups in a large republic: making it hard to get a majority with sufficiently common interests to create a dangerous power bloc. One can see a similar principle at work today in the fledgling republic of Iraq, in which competing religious and ethnic groups are forced into protecting themselves from being crushed, by agreeing to systems that protect everyone else from being crushed too (whether this proves enough in Iraq remains to be seen. But that it has worked at all so far, in such unpromising circumstances, is itself a testimony to the principle's strength).

And the principle works not only at the top and bottom, but in the middle.

The States of the Nation

Sitting in the middle are the state governments. Some people look at duplication and waste in government and propose that we don't need state governments. All we need, they say, is local government and federal government.

There is some point to this. State governments made more geographic sense when people travelled by horse and communicated by mail. In a world where you can fly across a continent in a few hours, and speak instantly around the globe, the administrative need for State Governments is questionable.

But I have a different view.

I agree that one level of government can be eliminated, but that is local government. Most functions of local government are not part of the proper role of government in the first place, and would be better handled by private enterprise (such as water and waste handling), voluntary associations of interested parties (beautification etc.), or private agreements coupled with legal restrictions on land use damaging to other people (e.g. zoning). If there are any exceptions, they could be run by the State Government just as easily.

But unlike local governments, who are small, weak and dispersed, State Governments are large enough to provide a credible check to the power of the national government. We have noted how the government has a monopoly on force. But in a country like Australia, while the armed forces are under the control of the federal government, the police are mainly under the control of the states. This alone, in my view, justifies their existence (and justifies placing immediate control of the police in State hands, which of course is not inherently necessary). The states not only have armed police who in the worst case could resist the military, but if liberty is not fully enthroned (as in all countries today), different states tend to have different mixtures of individualism and statism. That provides people with not only a degree of choice that lets them "vote with their feet�, but over the long term, the better states will do better (by having stronger economies and better living conditions, etc.): providing an object lesson to the voters in the worse states.

Another midlevel balancing of power which works well is having two houses of parliament. Whatever competing interests triggered their establishment (e.g. the Commons vs. the Lords in England; majority rule vs. protecting small states" interests in Australia), they serve an important role in providing yet another internal check on governmental abuses or excesses. As laws have to pass in both houses, there are two chances for a bad law to be rejected rather than just one. Hence the happy demise, in the Senate, of the "Australia Card" national ID system.

An interesting proposal for yet another balancing force that I first saw raised by The Atlantis Project (a defunct Libertarian proposal for a free nation on the oceans) is an "Anti-Law Department." Part of the government would be specifically chartered to challenge and overturn laws that might infringe on individual rights. This is similar in principle to what we have now, whereby individuals can challenge laws in the courts by reference to the Constitution. But by being a powerful arm of the government itself, and not requiring actual court cases against people with enough resources to fight it, it could be far more effective.

Oaths of Fealty

A further level of balancing power is in whom the arms of government, especially the armed ones, are loyal to. In dictatorships, for obvious reasons the military, militias etc. tend to be personally loyal to the dictator.

In contrast, while operational chains of command lie within the police and military themselves, whose top levels are in turn commanded by the Executive branch of government, the sworn loyalty of those forces in republics has to be to the people and the Constitution. That is, if there is a clear conflict between the Constitution and the orders of the executive, the military and the police are sworn to uphold the former. This is how it has to be, because their power morally derives from the delegation of the people's rights, and legally and morally they are required to defend those rights even against the elected government (which has no rights separate from the rights of the people).

Lasting Liberty

The net result of these multiple levels of power-balancing is an interlocking system where not merely one, but many institutions must fall or be corrupted before liberty can be completely lost. It provides a system where if one arm of government fails to protect individual rights, another may step in and fill the breach. And as noted above, this strength is enhanced because it is aided rather than opposed by the goals of both the defenders of liberty and the seekers of power.

Especially where the philosophical basis for the government and constitution is mixed, this does not provide absolute protection. But the degree of protection it does confer is illustrated by the history of the USA. Its government is a contradictory mix of freedom and statism, yet despite over a century of philosophical deterioration – including the long-lasting love affair of its intellectual "elite" with communism and other anti-individual ideologies – it still remains one of the freest nations on Earth.

Philosophy is needed for both the establishment and continuation of a moral system of government – and is the root cause of its loss as well. But philosophy exerts its influence over a time span of decades and centuries. With the right institutions and processes of government, the good can outlast long periods of decay. And by the nature of the good – where what is moral is practical, and hence in the long term, is that which enhances human life – it is over the long term that the good has a huge advantage. For liberty to never perish from the Earth we don't need to set up a perfect government: just one that protects individual rights well enough and long enough for their value to be obvious.