^ the falling man of 9/11 : emblem for when a system of checks and balances falls out of balance

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We who live in the USA and write of its politics take for granted what we call “checks and balances.” We applaud the Constitution for installing this basic principle : the Congress balances the Executive, and the High Court checks both : thereby assuring that no part of our governmental enjoys plenary power, which, as Amendment 10 says, is left to “the people.”

Myself, I’m not so sanguine about the principle. Too easily we forget that balance is a fragile thing. Think a tightrope walker walking his rope, balance pole in hand : tip himself even the slightest bit out of balance and he’s done for. same it is with a government founded in balances. Either the balance fails — as it has done during the President of 45 until recently — because one side of the pole collapses because it wants to, or it becomes so rigid — as it did from the day that President Obama took office — that it blocks the tightrope walker from walking at all.

To work, the system of check and balance has to accept two corollary principles : ( 1 ) those who would walk its tightrope must be extremely subservient to the tiny margin of error and ( 2 ) everyone involved must commit to the tightrope walker actually walking, all the way across the abyss.

If those who impose a government of checks and balances upon themselves do not commit to these two corollaries, or if they cease to commit to them, the tightrope walker falls to his death, or else doesn’t walk at all. Something of both has happened to our Constitutional arrangement these past nine years or so, and we see the consequences: anarchy and tyranny, both of which those who drafted and agreed to our Constitution sought to avoid.

They were not naive. They knew that the system they were agreeing to required good faith of those who sought to work it. They often said so, bluntly.

Checks and balances lead to nothing at all getting done if they become tactics to exploit, or if the balances become ends in themselves rather than prods to a resolution of differences.

The consequences of overreach, we see : nothing that needs be done gets done, yet life goes on, ad hoc, and thus the longer that nothing governmental. gets done, the more that ad hoc decisions come to be the norm, each one fraying the balance tight rope a little bit more, until there isn’t any rope at all and thus no Constitution. (or, better said, a Constitution in name only, nice words on parchment).

Principally we now experience three failures of balance, with the attendant consequences : ( 1 ) we impose a political agenda upon the Supreme Court, which as an un-elected body was never intended to have any political duties ( 2 ) we allow the legislative to aggravate social controversy rather than resolve it and ( 3 ) we force the executive to do the legislative resolving that we refuse to let the legislature do. All three failures compound one another, which is what happens when balance is lost : it is never lost only in one sector, because every sector of balance requires equilibrium of all.

Worse, today we have in power, and supported in that power, persons whose objective is to exploit the imbalances to their agenda’s advantage, forgetting that when a balance system goes out of balance, there is no advantage : one sided of a falling body may hit the ground first, but the rest of the body follows fatally with it. And thus the famous falling body photo that heads this column stands as a gruesome emblem of where we are now in an America whose Constitution is falling to the ground, both because it is an out of balance design and because imbalance is eagerly embraced by those who imagine that falling to the ground will kill only their opponents.

Niccolo Macchiavelli, in The Discourses, wrote brilliantly that divided government strengthens a political entity., He was the first writer to see the point, which is why we still read him 500 years after he wrote. What he did not say, because it was then only too obvious, is that divided government also means war of a sort with many casualties : many were banished, some were assassinated, and many more suffered economic disaster as faction prevailed over faction. Yet he was right. Divided government meant controversy, and controversy meant that there could never be only one truth,m one agenda, one creed. We are a free people today because divided government, in medieval Italy (from about 1200 to about 1550) established a model for defeating the agenda despotism of that era’s Papacy and, thus, of all agenda dictatorships that have arisen since.

We would be very wise to read The Discourtses again, along with Guicciardini’s history of Italy in that period, a record of conflict that can easily weary one’s sense of optimism about politics. But no more wearying than the political era — of obstruction, prerogative, and misuse of justice — in which we now live.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere


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