Original artwork by Marisa Draeger
“The conservative perceives the need for prudent restraints upon power and upon human passions.” Russell Kirk – Ten Conservative Principles
As we explored in Part 4, Captain Conservative heroically fought off the twin villains of Anarchy Man and Dr Despot with his trusty Limitation Ray which reduced the scope of government to its bare necessity. This allowed the people to enjoy both liberty and security at a depth and breath that had never been known before.
But Captain Conservative knew that Anarchy Man and Dr Despot would not be gone forever. Much like any other perennial supervillain, they’d soon be back. That’s why Captain Conservative turned to another weapon in his arsenal to ensure that when the evildoers returned, they’d have a much more difficult time enacting their dastardly schemes: his trusty Segregation of Duties Toolbelt.
While the true identify of Captain Conservative has remained a secret as the cape and spandex costume are passed from one generation to the next, I believe none other than America’s second President, John Adams, once donned the uniform. I doubt very seriously it was a coincident that Captain Conservative employed his Segregation of Duties Belt at precisely the same time Adams spoke out publicly for the need for “checks and balances.”
Many of us may recall the phrase “checks and balances” from our high school civics class, even if we lack a firm understanding of how it works. For this we have not only our high school civics teacher to thank, but Adams as well. “[John Adams’] arguments for a proper division of powers have become so familiar to Americans that they may appear wearisome truisms. But it is Adams who made them truisms,” wrote Russell Kirk. “More than any other nation in the world, the United States cling affectionately to the idea of political balance; and in large measure, this is the harvest of Adams’ practical conservatism.”
Limiting the powers of government was not enough for Adams. He insisted we had to install proper “checks and balances” to segregate the powers of government in such a way the government itself would hold the government in check. Whatever authority was to remain with the government after the Limitation Ray had reduced its size would be carefully balanced across competing interests and individuals so that no one individual or interest group could exert excessive force without being checked by the others.
Even with the populace accepting the heavy responsibility of self-governance, it is naïve to think that alone will secure liberty. “Experience has ever shown, that education, as well as religion, aristocracy, as well as democracy and monarchy, are, singerly, totally inadequate to the business of restraining the passions of men, of preserving a steady government, and protecting the lives, liberties, and properties of the people,” John Adams insisted. “Only the balancing of passion, interest, and power against opposing passion, interest, and power can make a state just and tranquil.”
Adams was suspicious there was no permanent way to rig the system or get enough of the “right people” in power that could protect against the wily schemes of Anarchy Man or a surprising attack from Dr Despot. The eventual breakdown of all civilizations may be inevitable, but, for Adams, such a breakdown could be warded off into the distant future if the government could be structured in such a way that each interest group jealously guarded liberty by holding the other interest groups in check.
And as John Adams was pontificating the need for checks and balances, Captain Conservative was hard at work. The application of Captain Conservative’s Segregation of Duties Toolbelt impacted every level of government. He began at the top, with the Federal government, by enshrining in the Constitution not one but THREE branches of authority: the legislative, the executive, and the judicial. At the risk of oversimplifying the matter, the legislative branch had the power to make the laws and fund government, the executive branch had the power to enforce the laws and appoint judges, and the judicial branch had the power to interpret those laws and declare a law unconstitutional (of no effect).
But Captain Conservative wasn’t even close to being finished. Within the legislative branch there were even more checks and balances. The branch was divided into two parts comprised of representatives and senators. Those representatives would be selected by the people of each state according to the population within each state. And those senators (at least initially) would be selected by the state governments themselves. This ensured that part of the legislative branch answered directly to the people while the other part answered directly to their respective states, and both parts had to come together to get anything accomplished.
And what about this business with the states? Those states weren’t just geographical regions in the country, but were each considered almost miniature “nations” within the nation, and the Constitution provided certain rights, privileges, and authority to the states so that the states themselves could check the power of the Federal government. Those states would each be run by their own body of representatives chosen by the people.
That executive branch would have the power to veto any law the legislative branch put before it, unless a very large majority of the legislative branch overruled the veto. And the executive branch commanded the military and was charged with protecting the nation from foreign and domestic threats, even though the power to declare and fund wars was given to the legislative branch. The executive branch was loosely defined, allowing for its power and authority to shift with the changing circumstances that faced the nation in times of war or great disasters. What’s more, the leader of the executive branch—called the President—would be selected by a complex process known as the electoral college to ensure each state had a proportional say in who was in charge without the risk of the larger states bullying the smaller states. And in the event the executive began abusing their authority, the legislative branch had the power to remove them from power.
And then the judicial branch had the power (though not at first) to declare anything the other two branches or even the states did unconstitutional, essentially making it null and void. But those justices in this branch were selected by the executive branch and approved by that senate part of the legislative branch.
It may sound needlessly complicated to some, but by giving each branch some power over the other, Captain Conservative knew that it was only natural for each branch to jealously protect its power and prevent the other branches from overreaching. This was a brilliant move, for it used humanity’s defective tendency to attain as much power as possible (Part 1 and Part 2) to our advantage. No one would have ultimate authority, for far too many would have the power to prevent one group or individual from assuming ultimate authority. Segregating the powers of government turned out to be Dr Despot’s kryptonite.
And yet Captain Conservative recognized that even this triumphant victory wouldn’t last forever. Since the craving for power is part of human nature, life will always find a way to allow Anarchy Man or Dr Despot to creep back in. Yes, life finds a way—say it Jeff Goldblum!
In fact, we are currently witnessing the breakdown of this carefully balanced system. You see, the system depends upon the idea that those three branches of government—the legislative, executive, and judicial—hold the power of the others in check simply because they don’t want to lose any power to the others. But what happens if one of those branches begins to lose interest in their power?
Among the motivations for holding political office today, power itself is now one of many competing incentives. Fame, influence, making a fortunate, moving to a lobbying position, and living “the good life” are also strong motivations—motivations that were less available to Federal office holders not that many years ago. Today, with the advent of social media, the explosion in growth of the greater Washington D.C. area, the prospects of lucrative insider trading, and American celebrity worship, some legislators appear to have a far greater motive to skirt their responsibilities and hang on to office for dear life.
Wielding power can be fun, but it brings with it certain risks, not the least of which is the risk of upsetting some group or faction who then remove you from power. But giving that power, or that responsibility, over to someone else—such as some faceless Federal agency or unelected judge—can reduce those risks while still allowing the legislator to enjoy what the nation’s capital has to offer. Before the advent of central heating and air, Washington D.C. was a miserable place to live for much of the year. Today it is a sprawling metropolis, offering the amenities one might expect in any sizeable city in spades and offers a vast array of opportunities for those looking to grow roots into the Deep State.
Increasingly, laws are now passed that are either so complex or so vague that it’s practically necessary for the executive branch to take on more responsibilities determining how to enforce them, or for the judicial branch to take more effort at interpreting them. Nancy Pelosi’s infamous comment about Obamacare that Congress would have to “pass the bill to find out what is in it” has been routinely taken out of context. And yet she was, perhaps inadvertently, revealing a rather troublesome development in the legislative process: many of the laws that are passed by Congress are modified by interpretation or enforcement to such a degree that they end up barely recognizable from the laws Congress originally enacted.
Obamacare was such a sweeping and massive piece of legislation that it took an army of bureaucrats in the executive branch to write the rules. Not to be outdone, the judicial branch went even further when Chief Justice John Roberts determined that the law, as written, was unsuitable, constitutionally speaking, so he thought it’d be appropriate to—sigh—rewrite the law. USA Today put it best: “After two Supreme Court decisions and countless executive orders, [Obamacare] is indeed no longer ‘just a law.’ It has morphed into a judicial-executive chimera, bearing less and less resemblance to the bill Congress enacted.”
All of this shifting of authority away from one branch and over to the others has devastating consequences. It’s as if one of the three legs of a stool suddenly decided it didn’t want the authority or responsibility of supporting the seat any more and tried to give that job to the other two legs. Much like a stool, the whole system risks collapse when one side no longer has the same incentives that kept the system propped up in the first place. Captain Conservative saved us from Anarchy Man and Dr Despot centuries ago; who will save us from Two-Legged Stool Man?! He represents yet another villain the Millennial generation’s Captain Conservative will soon have to battle.
Captain Conservative’s trusty Limitation Ray and Segregation of Duties Toolbelt has served him well in the past, but he knows those weapons can only do so much—especially if Two-Legged Stool Man proves invulnerable to those attacks. Thankfully, Captain Conservative has one last weapon in his arsenal against evildoers—the most powerful weapon of all. Tune in next week for another exciting adventure as we find out what it is!