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Checks and Balances

By Matthew Yglesias on March 13, 2010 at 5:31 pm

"Checks and Balances"

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Evan Bayh, talking to Ezra Klein, says ” I think checks and balances are important, but we need to reform the system to make action more possible than it currently is.”

That’s basically boilerplate, and I don’t expect anyone to say “I think checks and balances reflect an outmoded, 18th century concept of how to preserve political liberty.” But I do think it would be worth pressing more political elites on what exactly is so important about checks and balances. The Canadian political system features few checks, and doesn’t appear to have degenerated into tyranny. The British system features famously few checks—almost none at all—and likewise freedom reigns. Conversely, in the United States congress and the judiciary have largely chosen, in practice, to offer basically no resistance to Presidential assertions of national security powers unless they’re backed by overwhelming public opinion. So with the Nixon administration exposed in the press and discredited, congress and the Supreme Court stood firm to hound him from office and to temporarily restrain surveillance powers. But normally, the president can do what he wants.

Long story short, while I don’t see any prospects for dramatic transformation of our political system away from the checks and balances model to something more like what prevails in Canada or the UK, I’m also skeptical that our system is really delivering the intended benefits.

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