Monday, June 29, 2009

Liberty and the Separation of Powers

The Liberal Democrat remain steadfast in their belief that liberty must not be sacrificed on the altar of security and regrets the climate of fear that has been fostered by the approach of both Labour and the Conservatives to issues of domestic and international security. We believe that liberty, justice and the separation of powers are essential to achieving lasting security and that abandoning liberties, particularly in the face of unconventional threats from criminals and terrorists, will only serve to make Britain both less free and less secure.

-- Robin Lawrence UK Liberal Democrat Park Ward Councillor Source: Liberal Democrat Conference, Sep. 13, 2008 (HT Liberty Quotes)

Lawrence points out that "liberty, justice and the separation of powers" are the principles which provide us with the greatest security over the long term. He warns against letting the fear of terrorists distract us from that fact and trade them for a false sense of security in the short term.

It strikes me that the exact same thing could be said about our prosperity and general welfare--including concern over the quality of our environment. Fear of climate change, catastrophic or otherwise, and of economic downturns has politicians responding to and magnifying the call for abandoning liberty (personal freedom of choice) for the sake of security.

We traditionally, and appropriately, think of the separation of powers as the assignment of different governmental tasks and areas of control to different, and competing, divisions of government, e.g. the three branches of Judiciary, Executive and Legislative. Further division of power occurs in that each branch exists at a variety of levels, e.g. federal, state, local. Within each branch are further subdivisions which provide yet more checks and balances. For the Judicial branch, there is a hierarchy of judges as well as the jury. In the Legislative, we divide power between the Senate and the House.

Another key factor in the separation of powers is the balance of power between the government itself and the people. This is made explicit in the Constitution in the Tenth Amendment:
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, and to the people.

The more power that is delegated to the government, the less the power private individuals hold as a check against tyranny. The more we allow "public" ownership or control of businesses, the more the balance tips toward government control at the expense of liberty. Since the ultimate purpose of our government is to secure the individual rights of life, liberty and property, it is essential that we delegate to government only as much power as is necessary to achieve that purpose, and no more. Our ever-growing "public sector" is a threat to the ultimate separation of power and to the provision of checks and balances which are necessary to maintain our inalienable liberties.

A famous quotation, written anonymously but frequently (incorrectly) attributed to Benjamin Franklin is a s follows:
Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.
If we continue on our current path of relinquishing our independence in the name of safety, I wouldn't go so far as to say we don't deserve liberty or safety, but we certainly will not achieve them.

Addendum: For more on checks and balances, separation of power and the Rule of Law, check out the analysis of the situation in Honduras at The New Clarion. Be sure to read the comments and the linked articles. (HT Rational Capitalist.)



Jenny said...

In some countries facing serious security threats such as South Korea facing North Korea, the liberty of communists need to be curtailed to provide security and wealth for the majority of people.

HaynesBE said...

I do not equate liberty and licence. Since valid freedom is based on individual rights, it is not a curtailment of liberty to halt those who are violating individual rights---which communism invariably does. There is no "freedom" to violate the rights of others.

Would you agree?