Inherent within our liberal democracies, the separation of powers doctrine is designed to ensure that no one branch of government can come to dominate the others. In simple terms, the executive cannot interpret law, the legislator cannot not enforce it, and the judiciary cannot (shouldn’t) create it. Reminding ourselves of this important doctrine could act as the basis for improving our democracies and re=empowring citizens.
This principle, widely recognised in the modern period, serves as a foundation for our political systems even today. The likes of Montesquieu, John Locke, and Rousseau pioneered the modern approach but the idea that the power of the government goes as far back as the Greeks. Herodotus, for example, noted distinctions between institutions as much as between factions within the Greek City-States, and in the famous Constitutional Debate three Persian nobles debate the merits of government and the extent of its power. Inherent within Herodotus’ ideological scope is also the idea that political power should be limited.
Among ancient writers Polybius perhaps stands out from the rest. He famously argues that what made the Romans superior to the Greeks was their ability to harness Monarchy, Oligarchy and Democracy within one system. This was the Republic, or Res Publica to the Romans. By doing so the Romans were able to harness the benefits that each of these systems created whilst simultaneously mitigating the negative aspects of each system. Scholars to this day doubt that the system Polybius describes ever existed and functioned as he would have us believe, but the staying power of this idea
had profound effect on later thinkers and leaders who founded our modern democracies. The Founding Fathers of the United States were particularly influenced and aimed to balance the powers of each branch of the government against one another and with the powers of the states. Indeed, among the Founding Fathers there was a fierce debate as to the balance of these powers and interests.
Some, like Thomas Jefferson fought tooth and nail to ensure that the Federal Government was not too strong, and advocated that Congress be the most important institution of the Republic. Others, like Alexander Hamilton, wanted a more centralized state lead by a strong executive represented by the President. Of course, over the centuries the balance of these powers has waxed and waned depending on the circumstance. This is true of the United States, and it is true elsewhere.
Important to understand within this concept of the separation of powers is the idea, or perhaps the recognition that power tends to accumulate and consolidate towards a single institution. This simple tenet led some political theorists in the early 20th century to turn towards fascism as the natural conclusion.
Robert Michels argued that within democratic structures there always exists an ‘Iron Law of Oligarchy’ progressively moving the democratic structures towards an oligarchical one that serves the interests of the few.
Karl Schmidt also thought that democracy created the conditions for fascism because each constitutional crisis lead to a consolidation of more powers within a single institution in order to resolve that crisis. This idea remains prevalent still today among those who believe that governments are concentrating too much power and leaving citizens feeling alienated from the political process, in turn feeding radical reactions on both sides of the political spectrum.
The separation of powers is the cornerstone of our modern liberal democracies. As our economies and societies become increasingly complex governments are struggling to maintain pace. This is turn places strains on the political system forcing governments to operate more efficiently. Unfortunately for citizens, this can mean a reduction in liberties and freedoms for the sake of efficiency. The consolidation of powers by an institution, or a group of institutions is often justified on this basis.
The democratic deficits that modern democracies are facing will not be solved by political powers who seek to “reform” institutions and make government processes more bureaucratic and obscurer for citizens.
Going back to the fundamentals of our democracies should act as the roadmap for governments and citizens alike. Personal freedom and legitimate means for citizens to control their lives outside of mere economic choices will lessen the democratic deficit and lead to less extremism on both sides of the political spectrum.