This week the principle of the separation of powers and checks and balances was the topic of the show.
The different kinds of government that existed at the time of the American revolution, and the guiding principle required to make each work, came from “Montesquieu: The Spirit of the Laws (Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought)” (Charles de Montesquieu) (the version I have seems out of print, released by The Hafner Library of Classics). The book itself is available on line, though in older translations. One online version of The Spirit of Laws can be accessed here. An earlier work of his was Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and their Decline.
Ideas, such as those put forward by Montesquieu, the reasons they were so attractive and influential, and how that attraction and influence can be gleaned from what the American revolutionaries said, did, and wrote, is tackled by Gregory S. Ahern in Virtue, Wisdom, Experience, Not Abstract Rights, Form the Basis of the American Republic. Liberty Haven also has a useful essay: The Founding of the American Republic: 5. The Enlightenment Impetus.
The debates on what America’s governing principles should be, and what its Constitution should contain, produced The Federalist Papers, which are required reading for anyone wanting to understand the issues of the times.
Among the fears of course of the American founding fathers was the “tyranny of the majority.” The first book I was ever given on the American principles of government was written by a Frenchman: “Democracy in America” (Alexis de Tocqueville) (I have enjoyed reading, and re-reading portions of, this book, but have never really been engaged by the Federalist Papers, for example). Chapter XVI: Causes Which Mitigate The Tyranny of the Majority in the United States is particularly relevant to this episode of the show. (You can access all of Democracy in America online).
The dynamics of the leaders of the American Revolution and how they grappled with their mutual suspicions and hostilities is engagingly tackled in “Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation” (Joseph J. Ellis), which I’d recommend to anyone. “His Excellency: George Washington (Vintage)” (Joseph J. Ellis) also makes for fascinating reading, as does “John Adams” (David McCullough) (all these books are available in Philippine bookstores).
A viewer violently objected to my characterization of the American founding fathers as “paranoid people.” But they were. Here’s a bit of dialogue from The West Wing, Season 6, episode 8, “In The Room” just as an example, among many, that this isn’t only my view:
Vinick: The Founding Fathers didn’t set up a government based on trust. They could have designed a government based on trust in our ability to govern fairly but they knew that power corrupts so they invented checks and balances. That was genius. The Founding Fathers did not want me to trust you and they did not want you to trust me.
Josh: Well they must be very proud of us.
We made use of some helpful online charts.
First, on the parliamentary system;: a very clear and useful chart showing how parliamentary supremacy functions. Second, a Checks and Balances Flow Chart. Another useful chart breaks down each branch’s checks and balances vis a vis the rest.
Online resources are rich: Scholastic.com compares and contrasts parliamentary with presidential, but also aggregates many useful links.
An important, unofficial, check and balance to the parliamentary system, is access to the media. See this web page, Political Frameworks, which compares and contrasts the presidential and parliamentary systems and points to the role of media in parliamentary democracies.
This essay by Ambeth Ocampo provided a useful quote for the show: Mabini asked why the Malolos Constitution was patterned after those of countries that adopted them in times of peace. Mabini’s criticism of the First Republic are accessible online: read his La Revolucion Filipina, in particular Chapter IX.
Supporters of parliamentary government should also be aware with the existing dissatisfaction with that system that exists in countries with parliaments. Allan Gregg has an interesting essay on what Canadians consider the limitations of their parliamentary system -and some solutions he’d like to propose. A speech by someone working for the Parliament of India also has interesting observations and proposals.
Finally, something two guests (Rep. Locsin and last night’s guest, Dr. Kiko Magno, professor of Political Science at DLSU) both agreed on: neither one can think of any country where a public used to electing national officials, gave up that power. Dr. Magno could only think of the parliamentary system being abandoned in favor of the presidential system in countries emerging from British rule; but as for independent countries to abandon presidential for parliamentary, he can’t think of any examples. He pointed out that generally, the parliamentary system has evolved from monarchy; and represents an evolutionary process more often than not, while the presidential system is the result of a more revolutionary process.
My closing statement for the show was as follows:
Parliaments and presidential governments have both fallen under the sway of dictators.
But in defense of the presidential system, presidents who have become dictators have often had to shut down a constitutionally-independent congress, as marcos did in 1972. There is less of an opportunity in the presidential system to legitimize a dictatorship: a congress may not stop a tank, but the tanks having to surround congress on behalf of a president means no one can suffer from the delusion that what’s happening is either constitutional, or legal.
I once saw a documentary on the unicameral parliament of china. It’s a singe-party dictatorship, of course. Two delegates dared to vote against their party. Fellow delegates rushed to shake their hands -how thrilling, they said, to see democracy in action!
One of the two said, if it’s so thrilling, why didn’t you also vote against? The only response they got was, “well, you know, there are many reasons…”
Actually, only one. There aren’t any checks and balances.
(The documentary is the BBC’s China: The Power and the People, part 1 of a fascinating 4-part series.
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