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What is the aim of the separation of powers?

Simply put- to stop tyranny before it takes hold

[The way I react to current events has a lot to do with my past experience.  Often as I’m preparing posts that reflect this, I realize that I am taking things for granted that my readers, on account of their different experience, may not as readily assume.  In reaction to this realization, as I write posts I find myself trying to summarize the background for my observations. This often leads to essays that are unsuitable for the immediate purpose.  Like scenes from a movie that end up on the cutting room floor, I often end up editing out these explanatory digressions, since they would make the length and density of my posts (which, in any case, put off some of my readers) even more challenging.

Though I know such editing is necessary and useful in order to make the contents of my blog more accessible, I have nonetheless felt a kind of guilt at the thought that I’m not giving the thought or reasoning I’m trying to express their due.  With the help of a good friend, I recently came to the conclusion that I ought to find a way to add some of these background essays to the contents of this blog, partly in order to allay this intellectual guilt, but also to let readers who might be interested have the chance to consider and react to them.

I’ve decided, therefore, to start posting such writings occasionally, under the heading “A Backdrop Post“, meant to signify that these posts provide context for the thinking presented in another post. The heading  will be linked to the article that gave rise to the Backdrop.  Also somewhere in the article there will be a link to the Backdrop post it occasioned.

I’m sure each of you will get a sense of whether these posts are of interest to you.  If they are not, you’ll be able to take a pass when you see the Backdrop marker.  I hope others will find them interesting, though always with the understanding that the thoughts they express are more like scaffolding than finished construction.

BTW, the decision to publish this sort of post is also part of my project (see the gofundme.com notice in the sidebar) to restructure LTL so that it can better serve as an educational reference tool, in addition to providing fodder for thinking through and discussing ongoing events.  As resources allow, the changes that are part of this project will become evident.]

A Backdrop Post            

The prevention of tyranny is the first premise of the logic of constitutional self-government in the United States.  What is tyranny?  It consists in consolidating control of the whole power of government in the hands of one decision-making body.  At the time the United States successfully asserted its independence, the prevalent actors of the founding generation, influenced by their Biblical heritage, their experience with the common law of England, and the analysis of the nature of lawful government power developed by ancient and modern political thinkers such as Aristotle and Cicero among the ancients, and Grotius, Hooker, Locke and Montesquieu among the moderns, viewed the whole of government power as divided into three component parts or branches: the executive, the legislative and the judicial.

Though distinct from one another, these parts of branches of government are, like phases of the moon. They are stages or moments in what remains, in and of itself, objectively the same activity.  Consider for, example, the disposition of the case of a murdered individual.  To take notice of the death; ascertain its features and circumstances; conclude that a crime has been committed; and identify and apprehend the culprit, are in one sense different aspects of the same activity.

But aside from energetic observation, investigation, pursuit and apprehension, the activity also requires sufficient knowledge of the law to make the judgment that a crime has been committed.  That knowledge assumes that the terms of the law have been established and proclaimed, so that they may be known.  Finally, a judgment has to be made about whether, in light of the law thus known, and the facts and circumstances thus ascertained, an individual or individuals have come to light who may reasonably be held responsible for the crime.

These different aspects of the situation constitute distinct moments or stages of an activity its intended result requires that they be brought together in a single moment of apperception.  In this respect, the conclusive exercise of government power is like the moment in a geometric or other logical proof when its various components (including of course the rules of rational thought) come together to produce the conviction that, in light of them, only one rational conclusion is to be possible.

If human beings could find among themselves someone who perfectly represented reason in humanly understandable terms (reason incarnate, as it were), that person would justly wield the whole power of human government.  As foretold in the Scripture (Revelation 20:4), that one is Jesus Christ, who will bind the slanderer Satan and throw him into the abyss, thereupon ruling for a thousand years.  By Christ’s authority, government will be established in which the judges are witnesses to truth, administering His wholly perfect rule of justice.

Until that Second Coming, there will be no one in human form who can be trusted to wield the three branches of government as one.  Even rulers otherwise superbly righteous (like Israel’s King David for instance) are unlikely, in every case, simply and consistently to apply the law of nature, by reason of God’s will, with naught but rational conviction.  All are apt to pervert the course of justice in order to serve their own will once the defects of human apperception and passion come into play.

The fool sayeth in his heart there is no God.  The sway of selfish passion and inclination may render any man a fool, turning the thoughts of his heart from God’s way.  But, thank God, this very selfishness reduces the likelihood that the thoughts of every heart will, with one accord, turn to folly.  As every man does what is right, according to his own inclination, some will go one way, some another.  But all will be partially inclined to follow the inclination God has written on their hearts, because it is present, by nature, in all of them.  Only in cases where their own particular circumstances rise to contrary perceptions and passions will they be impelled by them to resist it.

On that account, by placing the several branches of government power in several hands, the coincidence of folly that leads to injustice may be hobbled, thwarted and postponed in its effects, by the more generally true coincidence of goodwill that is common to all on account of their God-endowed nature, provided that general coincidence has a readily available rallying point.

The provisions of a justly conceived constitution for government should provide that rallying point for the general inclination of people of goodwill.   So to focus and enhance their relative power, in order to countervail humanity’s particular bent toward folly and wickedness, is the defining purpose of constitutional government.  From this it appears that, contrary to the shallow slogans of our times, the aim of constitutional law is not to limit government power simply for the sake of doing so.

It is, rather, to limit its power, as government itself limits the power of individuals, in order to constrain human activity within the bounds of justice.  When no power can overstep those bounds without opposition from another, great enough to stymy it advances, all will all be free justly to use their power fruitful ways that also pursue and keep peace.  This keeps the shadows of fear and violent death at bay, while opening up the fruitful prospects made possible by the exercise of freedom according to God’s will.

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  • Dawg_em August 29, 2014, 2:24 pm

    A “Backdrop Post” is an excellent idea. Although such an addition will not likely mitigate the necessity for me to conscienciously and deliberatively think things through. Ah yes, an exercise within an exercise.

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