Thursday, June 5, 2008

Checks and Balances

Hamilton got this idea from a book by Montesquieu, De L'Esprit des Lois (The Spirit of The Laws)(1748). I haven't read this book, and won't discuss it until I have.

Why did Hamilton and Madison seize on Montesquieu's idea of 'separated powers' and build it into the constitution of the new republic? As close students of Machiavelli as well as Hobbes and Thucydides, they knew that good men in politics are hard to find and don't in any case last very long--virtually no one can remain unaffected if not corrupted by power. Rulers must learn not to trust anyone; people in general are a "wretched lot"--mean, ignorant, hypocritical, treacherous, easily corruptible. In a mordantly witty and telling phrase, Machiavelli says men will more easily forgive the murder of a father than the loss of a patrimony. How then could anyone hope to construct a government of, by and for such people? 'Checks and balances' is part of the answer. The idea is to build into the structure of government a system of self-regulating incentives and sanctions. It is in the self-interest of those in the different branches or arms of government--executive, legislative, judicial--to keep an eye on the doings of the others. If men were angels, says Hamilton in one of his Federalist essays, such machinery would not be necessary...


  1. During the spring of 1989, students at Hebei University asked me about separation of powers. I did my best to explain the idea. They also asked whether heads of state were above the law.

    The questions were very good ones and showed that Beijing Spring was time of subtlety and sophistication.

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