The abuse of power in society can be so severe, and detrimental – it leads to such things as slavery and genocide – that it must be effectively counteracted. To accomplish this, we use a system of checks and balances. We have checks, to limit the size of any one source or concentration of power, and balances between all such sources. However, because there are so many possibilities for abuse, the system that has evolved is now quite complicated. But, even given this complexity (or perhaps because of it), it still leaves much to be desired. The problems the world is now experiencing are testament to the fact that our checks and balances on power have in many important ways failed.

There are a number of different ways to look at this. For example, if you think of society as a combination of individuals and institutions, we need checks on both. For ordinary people, this is relatively simple. The legal system, in particular criminal law, functions as a deterrent against and the means of resolution for abuses of personal power. In addition, social norms help balance other types of inappropriate behavior, such as popular disapproval of expressions of bigotry, and of conspicuous consumption.

The situation with institutions is much more challenging. There are different types of institutions, all of which pose unique problems, and also the question of the institutions’ leaders. Our overall objective is to ensure that the institutions focus on satisfying our needs, and that they avoid pursuing goals which diverge from this, in particular the desire of their leaders for extreme wealth and power.

Another way to look at checks and balances is to recognize that they begin with ethics. We should avoid injuring others, and accept responsibility when we do. This is our basic protection from natural law. Ethics in turn are disseminated through education, in particular the good manners that we are taught (or that we should be taught) within our families. They are further formally embodied in the legal system.

Our ethics are the basis for the values of our society, including equality and freedom, and also the other ideals that underlie democracy: that we should cooperate together and limit our personal selfishness. From this perspective, then, the objective of checks and balances is to confront all such threats to these values. For instance, for equality, society must have mechanisms to protect the members of its different distinct groups from any and all types of discrimination.

More directly, checks and balances confront the different institutional concentrations of power, including the specific risks of abuse to which they are subject. This in turn leads to prioritization. The greater the power, the more serious the resulting abuse, hence the more important the associated checks.

Of course, in this discussion we are implicitly referring to democratic societies. In non-democratic societies, there are no such checks. In addition, in representative democracies leaders are selected, at least in part, on the basis of merit. It is important to recognize, though, that while we may place our trust in such leaders, because of their prior accomplishments, that trust is not a check.

This also explains why we cannot rely on self-regulation: that the institutions will control themselves. As example after example illustrate, self-regulation regularly fails. The basic reason for this is that the institutions do not perceive their wrongs as clearly as we do, or even as wrongs. Also, their leaders cannot be trusted.

We therefore must have an independent and verifiable system, in addition to the procedures in place within the institutions themselves, through which they attempt to control their own behavior.

As a final introductory comment, our system of checks and balances must be proactive, not only reactive. New threats continually evolve, and we must be prepared for this. New threats require new checks.

When considering institutions, we can begin with their leaders. This actually raises a much deeper issue, which undermines the basic idea that a system of checks and balances is even possible. Social checks begin with values, but they are administered by tangible organizations. And these organizations are institutions themselves, so our system of checks and balances is really a system of institutions controlling other institutions. But all of these institutions rely on leaders, who as a result of their positions enjoy wealth, power and privilege. They therefore have a vested interest that is inherently undemocratic: to protect their privilege.

Said another way, democracy’s checks, which are designed to limit privilege and power, are implemented by people who are themselves privileged and powerful. It is therefore questionable how aggressively they will pursue their responsibilities. The checks may be good, but the people who implement them are not. They are corrupt, and as a result the system fails.

Related to this is the fact that it is difficult to hold leaders accountable, even the worst. First, they, with their allies in the media, do everything possible to argue that they are not in fact that bad. And secondly, if failure is undeniable, they find a subordinate on whom to pin the blame. It is a rare individual who accepts full responsibility for the consequences of his or her leadership.

There are means, additional checks on leaders, to prevent these problems, but it is debatable if there is a single nation on earth where they actually work. For example, one such check is the combination of term lengths and limits. Elected officials serve terms of a justifiable length, relative to the responsibilities of their positions, and they are allowed only a limited number of terms, normally two. Further, they are only awarded a second term if the voters judge them successful at the first.

Following this, there are the threats of dismissal and impeachment, and also legal checks against attempts to subvert democracy, as well as corruption, nepotism and perjury. All of these are quite intimidating, and one might expect that they would work. But the fact that leaders regularly get away with murder, and that corruption in government now occurs on an unimaginable scale, is proof that they don’t.

The reason for this is that the leaders’ underlying privilege, afforded by their wealth, is still protected. Until this is attacked, by implementing a system of wealth restrictions (including the inheritance principle for economic power), these other checks will be unable to function well.

This is the only way to address what is really the fundamental problem: leader psychology. Almost all leaders, no matter what they say publicly, in private reject equality. They think they are better than other people. They base this on the fact that they have more power. Of course, because of term limits this condition is only temporary (for political leaders). More deeply they believe they are better because they have greater wealth, and, at least in the present day, this wealth endures.

The final category of checks concerns the relationships between society’s different types of institutions, and also their internal structures. For the latter, the separation of power inherent in the three-branch structure of a democratic government is reviewed in the next lesson, on the Rule of Law. Between institutions, we have already considered the separation of church and state, in the discussion of theocracy. All such institutional sets require tangible separation, including between: commerce (or corporations) and state; commerce and church; and the media and both commerce and state. Additional checks are required for educational institutions, to prevent improper influence by the government, religions and corporations. Lastly, there are other checks within the government on its institutions of force: the military and the police.

A final point regarding institutions is that they are now in the process of adapting to globalization, including through developing new patterns of international collusion. International threats require international checks. But, the systems that are now in place are not up to the task.

The ultimate check in society is the people. The general public acts as a check in many different ways, through the vote; by expressing displeasure through established communication channels (including the Internet); by being whistleblowers; by engaging in activism including through participating in protests and boycotts; and lastly, when all else fails, through rebellion.

© Roland O. Watson 2008