James Hanley

James Hanley is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.

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73 Responses

  1. Avatar Murali says:

    This is awesome. I’m not familiar with the literature, but how many of such myths, do you suspect, infect the standard pol sci syllabus on governmentReport

    • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Murali says:

      Hmm, there’s inordinate praise of federalism. I’m very pro-federalist, but we treat it as a holy grail, thinking there’s something fundamentally flawed in non-federalist countries (except, perhaps for very small ones like Singapore).

      Most textbooks also are fairly unquestioning about the rise of presidency-centered politics and the growth in presidential power.

      And there’s probably too easy an assumption of the effectiveness of the Bill of Rights, with few critical looks at how they are encroached upon.

      Other than that, not a lot I can think of off the top of my head, although in general there’s so little comparative context and so little critical analysis that these textbooks implicitly–if inadvertently–send the message that the American style is just how things are, or ought to be, done. That’s why I use this supplemental text. I’ve had a couple of students get upset because the book dares to (lightly) critique the American system, but there’s not much you can do about students who refuse to allow their preconceptions to be challenged in any way.

      I think there’s also too much emphasis given to the role of the federal government in ending Jim Crow, and too little emphasis given to the on-the-ground organizing of the civil rights movement (without which the federal gov’t probably would not have acted). But I think that’s less a myth than a consequence of political scientists generally being more focused on the study of government than the study of political movements. At least those interested enough in American Government to write an American Government textbook.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

        I should note that there may be other myths I’m unaware of because…well, how can I actually know for sure I’m not believing in a myth until I become aware of it?Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to James Hanley says:

        I think there’s a widespread myth on how much bribery/blackmail goes on in government. Not that most people think government is… exactly clean. But I think a lot of people overestimate the lobbyist, and underestimate “fee for service” (which, to be clear, can be quite legal).Report

      • Hmm, there’s inordinate praise of federalism. I’m very pro-federalist, but we treat it as a holy grail, thinking there’s something fundamentally flawed in non-federalist countries (except, perhaps for very small ones like Singapore).

        Really? That was never the impression I got (as opposed to separation of powers). More along the lines that it’s important to us. Which is the conclusion I ultimately came to, of course, though I’d like to think not solely because that’s what I was taught.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

        Kim, yes, but in the general public, not in AmGov syllabi, which tend to be critical about the amount of money and its influence in campaigns, but without tending toward calling it bribery.

        Will, I probably shouldn’t have said praise. It’s rather more mixed than that. Little mention is normally given to unitary systems other than to say they exist, then the bulk of the attention is given to American federalism and how it changed from dual federalism to (so-called) cooperative federalism,* and (some say; I don’t) now “new federalism). So federalism is implicitly established as the norm, because that’s all you learn anything about, and it’s not generally critiqued at all–it’s drawbacks frequently go umentioned, leaving the assumption there are none. But at the same time, the bulk of the textbook writers are definitely not hard-core federalists, because most of them like the Rooseveltian cooperative federalism, being nationalists at heart, while not openly acknowledging it. They like a little bit of federalism, but not in anything they consider of national interest (which is a logical position, of course).
        *For those who don’t know the jargon, dual federalism is the original model in the US, where the federal government looked primarily outward to other countries and to the interstices between states (as with the interstate commerce clause), and almost everything internal to any state was its sole authority.

        Cooperative federalism evolved in the New Deal era, and allegedly involves states and the federal government working together to solve problems internal to states. My take–idiosyncratic, but I think empirically demonstrable–is that it’s not cooperative but coercive, as the federal gov’t bribes and pressures states to go along with its policy agenda. (E.g., your state can quite No Child Left Behind or lower your drinking age below 21, but it will lose education or road maintenance funds if you do so.) I think it only got the name “cooperative” federalism because pro-New Deal and nationalist-leaning political scientists saw it through rose-colored glasses.

        The so-called “new” federalism is a product of the Nixon-Reagan era, and involved removing some of the federal regulatory burden from states, e.g., by rolling back unfunded mandates, etc. I don’t think it’s actually new, as it hasn’t worked a fundamental constitutional (small-c) change the way cooperative federalism did. Cooperative (coercive) federalism is still the norm, the constitutional default, and “new” federalism is just an intermittent and opportunistic reaction to it.

        My federalism section is going to differ markedly from most texts. I hope that doesn’t dissuade other profs from using it in their classes, but it might. The fact that it will be a free on-line text only matters to some, and to them only to an extent, because of course they’re not paying for the book. (The textbook market is not a well-functioning market.)Report

      • @james-hanley
        The original federalism, and the similar (in effect, although not in law) practice of giving counties flexibility in implementing policy made a great deal of sense in a world where transportation and communication were slow, there was little migration, and essentially no overlap in function. Today, particularly with the overlap that occurs, it seems to me to make less sense. Or at least, there really ought to be a conscious effort made to eliminate the overlap.

        For example, a bunch of the current kerfuffle in Utah is due to overlap in law enforcement. BLM doesn’t want to (and under federal law, it’s not clear that they can) run a police force on the federal lands it oversees. Some of the county sheriffs refuse to enforce some of the federal laws on federal lands within their counties. The state hasn’t stepped in and settled things — my understanding of the Utah constitution and case law is sketchy, but to me it appears the state has tied its own hands and has no allowed way to discipline sheriffs (Utah is not a Dillon’s Rule state, so counties have some degree of authority outside of the state government).Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:


        That sounds solvable without impinging on federalism. The federal land is under federal authority, and not giving BLM power to police is simply a federal problem. Or, alternatively, if we want to insist the states police certain types of federal land (which sounds like a bad idea), inability to control local sheriffs is a state-level problem.

        But that’s not to deny that the question of how much federalism we want is, and always will be, an open question on which reasonable people can disagree reasonably. Although I don’t like the current wide-open construction of the interstate commerce clause, I think in an era where we understand the interstate effects of air pollution, it would be too archaic to insist that the feds can’t set pollution standards on businesses.Report

  2. Avatar Saul Degraw says:

    Interesting post, prof.

    I suspect that separation of powers made a lot of sense at the time of the early republic based upon the knowledge and experience of our early leaders. Now we simply take as an axiom taught to us as school children that separation of powers and federalism mean freedom.

    The big issue I see in the United States is that everyone sees themselves as being on the side of freedom and liberty but we all mean very different things by freedom and liberty. Two weeks ago, this American Life did a story about The Education of Little Bear by Forrest Carter and how it was really written by Asa Carter. Asa Carter wrote the infamous lines of “Segregation now, Segregation tomorrow, Segregation forever!” for George Wallace. He was a segregationists segregationist and hated blacks, Jews, and wrote his racism as being about freedom and liberty like many other opponents to civil rights. The story was about whether Asa Carter did a 180 and became a liberal or whether he remained a staunch racist and segregationist and the book works as a kind of joke/sneer against liberals. There is a lot of evidence for the latter.

    I suspect we want separation of powers because of political polarization and to prevent opponents with very different definitions of freedom from getting too much controlReport

  3. Avatar North says:

    Well Prof, Canada has an independent judiciary but the Canadian Senate is basically a romper room where the old patronage appointed farts sleep and has little power. The Executive in Canada is also the head of the majority party in Parliament (Essentially imagine that the Speaker or House Majority leader automatically became President) but of course all of the more sweeping symbolic and commander in chief like powers are sequestered away in the Canadian Monarchy where they are basically inert.
    Australia, New Zealand are much the same as Canada as I understand it but the UK has a much more feisty upper house.
    So I am uncertain how that would be interpreted into your separation continua. The legislative and executive powers are much more intertwined but there’s a separate mostly inactive Monarchy role.Report

    • Avatar James Hanley in reply to North says:

      Yep, that’s part of the problem. If you all had just cut ties quickly, like we did, you might have constructed a more rational (that is, more easily categorizable) state.

      But there’s where the art comes in. When the separation of powers is primarily symbolic, but theoretically still exercisable, should we classify it as weak separation or no separation? I’m more inclined to classify it as weak, because that’s a more cautious interpretation of the data, and because in the face of critique I can fall back on a) being cautious about my data, and b) the symbolic existence. If I classify it as no separation of powers, I go out on two limbs, even though I think as a practical matter it’s a more accurate representation.Report

      • @james-hanley

        True, the executive and legislative branches have little separation, but what about the independent judiciary in Canada that North mentions? Even before its “activist” turn in after 1982, it, and before 1949, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in UK, reviewed and overturned a lot of legislation.Report

    • Avatar James K in reply to North says:


      In fact our upper house grew so vestigial that we abolished it in the 19th Century.Report

  4. Avatar dragonfrog says:

    I wonder if there would be some sense in accounting for population – that is, if a point wasn’t a country’s political system, but a million people under a country’s political system. That’s on the thinking that perhaps separation of powers becomes increasingly necessary as the complexity of competing interests rises with the population of a state.

    It seems intuitive that India’s low freedom score and high population would flip the direction of the trend line. But would that be justified?

    Another confound that seems potentially quite relevant is time passed since decolonization.Report

  5. NobAkimoto NobAkimoto says:

    A couple things, at least from a theory point of view.

    One: Vertical separation of powers. All the EU states now have a de facto separation of powers between national, subnational, and supranational law. In particular the fact that the European Convention on Human Rights, and the European Court of Human Rights exists allows for certain elements of legislation to be challenged on both constitutional grounds and those based on the ECHR. While the Convention is written in such a way to give substantial leeway to national governments, its mere existence and incorporation into national systems of judicial review is a pretty substantial change from the norms of parliamentary sovereignty that has been the norm in European democracies since the 1840s.

    Second: To what extent does the legal system constitute a de facto vs. de jure separation of powers? That is to say, is a Continental legal system an additional axis on which to judge the independence of the judiciary and as a consequence the strength of power separation between branches? Further, what about extra-constitutional agencies that have no de jure power, but are culturally and societally considered to be a vital part of the state’s operation? The State Councils and National Ombudsman of the Netherlands are examples that come to mind, along with, say, the Negotiated Market model of Denmark which is essentially state and non-state actors sharing de facto control of national macro-economic policy.

    Third: This is kind of a sub-tangent, but the Fifth French Republic’s constitution was specifically amended to reduce the degree of separation of powers when they synchronized the electoral cycle between President and the parliament to reduce the possibility of cohabitation. Given that cohabitation is by definition the only time that the French Republic has any realistic separation of powers, you may as well label France as having non-existent separation of powers other than the views expressed above.

    Finally: Since the UK operates on a model of parliamentary sovereignty (which is in itself kind of oxymoronic due to the fact that parliament can’t constrain its future manifestation) with an extremely weak and narrow form of judicial review (administrative review), it should probably be labelled as not having any separation of powers whatsoever.Report

    • Avatar James Hanley in reply to NobAkimoto says:

      1. Good questions that are beyond the scope of what I’m writing, and that I can’t fully answer. In partial regards to your #2, I am going to emphasize that the Framers’ conception of separation of powers focused primarily on separating the executive from the legislative–while they did make the judiciary separate, they didn’t discuss that nearly as much, so we have little record of their thoughts in convention (although some in the Federalist Papers, which of course primarily reflect Madison’s and Hamilton’s thoughts, and Hamilton’s can’t be trusted since he would have said anything to get the Constitution passed (and yet his arguments, sincere or not, are very insightful). And I think it matters whether we see separation of powers in legislative-executive terms, or also see it as relevant to the judiciary, since there is research strongly supporting the critical importance of an independent judiciary to freedom.

      2. Good pointer on France. I really wish I had done more comparative in grad school, but my undergrad comparative class gave me an inaccurately bad impression of the field (it was basically a development course from a very left-wing perspective).

      3. I’m inclined to agree with you about the UK, although I may still play it safe. But does that necessarily apply to the other Westminster systems, too, then?Report

      • NobAkimoto NobAkimoto in reply to James Hanley says:

        On 3 (since this is the easiest to answer).

        The UK is actually somewhat special even within Westminster systems, in that there’s no formal constitution whatsoever. You can see this in how easily they abolished the Law Lords and replaced it with the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom. Other Commonwealths like Canada have strange hybridized systems wherein an older Act of Parliament (the Canada Act/Constitution Acts) serves as a de facto check of Parliamentary Sovereignty by laying out a set of areas where the procedure for changing things is substantially different. New Zealand operates on a system closer to the UK while Australia is in substance closer to Canada.

        A bit additionally:
        I think judicial separation is a lot more important (and taken for granted) than a lot of people realize. This is even more important when we’re talking about a formal vs. informal constitutional system. Having the power of legislative judicial review is an enormous check on legislative power, perhaps far more significant than that between splitting executive/legislature power, particularly when you combine it with a strong formal constitution.

        And the role of non-state institutions in separating economic power from the system as well. The importance of say, Monetary Policy in modern statecraft is hard to overstate. Robbing a state of that power usually results in the need for harsher measures in other areas of the economy.Report

  6. Avatar Chris says:

    If you want some help with the data analysis, let me know. I have R and SAS sitting open in two different windows, and SPSS lying dormant (as it should be) ;).Report

    • Avatar Chris in reply to Chris says:

      By the way, if you’re making a regression line, I’d just throw the strong separation category out, because there are only 2, so they’re just going to create noise (no law of small numbers, and such). Then you can do some sort of analysis comparing the distributions of the no and weak categories without worrying about encompassing those two strong cases.Report

      • NobAkimoto NobAkimoto in reply to Chris says:

        Since we haven’t seen his math or formula I think we should sharpen our knives before pouncing.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Chris says:

        Hone your knives; no need to sharpen unless they’re chipped (yes, oversimplification).Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Chris says:

        It’s just an Excel graph plotting the countries on two dimensions. And there’s only 23 cases, 21 without the two strong separation cases. What would you do with it? Is there much that can be gained from more sophisticated analysis? (Note: my stats background isn’t quite what it should be, so I’m all ears.)

        If time allows, in the future I’d like to expand that beyond those 23 cases (they’re a sort of standard, because of Lijphart’s influence in the field of democratic theory) to include some cases of less long-standing democracies. Indonesia, for example, I believe instituted an American-style separation of powers system in their current constitution. That’s when more sophisticated analysis would surely be valuable, to try to control for variables like length of time as a democracy, years independent, economic development, etc.

        I do need the two strong cases in there for purposes of presenting this to students in an intro American Gov’t class. For that purpose what we find in there isn’t nearly so important as what we don’t find.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Chris says:

        Eh, there’s not a whole lot you can do, because you’ve got such a small n, but a regression line between the two isn’t going to tell you much. Better to just plot means and standard deviation, maybe a t-test on top of that, though with a small df you’re not going to have much power. Given the difference in the spread that you see in your chart, maybe a box plot?

        Just eyeballing it, if I were going to draw a conclusion, it would be that there may be no difference, on average, between the no and weak groups, but the little data we have suggests that no separation of powers allows for a wider range of freedom scores, which may or may not be a good thing (depending on where you end up in that range).Report

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to Chris says:

        Ordinary Times
        We should sharpen our knives before pouncingReport

      • Avatar Glyph in reply to Chris says:

        the little data we have suggests that no separation of powers allows for a wider range of freedom scores, which may or may not be a good thing (depending on where you end up in that range).

        Assuming this is true, it would still line up nicely with the idea that the Founders weren’t trying to set up a perfect system; just one that would not fail quite *so* hard, when it does fail.Report

      • NobAkimoto NobAkimoto in reply to Chris says:

        In terms of case studies, then, I think you really should just focus on comparing the US separation of powers with a Parliamentary Sovereignty state like the UK. One might also note that in theory a lot of the postcolonial states had separation of powers rather than parliamentary sovereignty, but those often didn’t end up doing particularly well by freedom metrics.

        With all that said, however:
        A very interesting constitutional case of CONSOLIDATING power into the legislature might be that of the Meiji Constitution Japan. Article 11 officially exempted some executive agencies (more specifically the Imperial Army and Imperial Navy) from legislative control. This, in the end, would have some disastrous consequences.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Chris says:

        Glyph, or perhaps that, as with most human things, they stumbled upon the most stable answer after thousands of years of trying.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Chris says:


        Without meaning any disrespect at all, I’m amused at the thought of trying to explain standard deviation and t-tests to frosh American Gov’t students who are only in the class because their adviser told them they needed a SoSci class and it didn’t conflict with their practice schedule. 😉

        But I’ll look at it those ways and see what I like. The main purpose, of course, is not to develop a very sophisticated analysis, but just to plant some seeds of thought.Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Chris says:

      Wow, check out @chris with the big polimetrics!Report

  7. Avatar Matty says:

    My understanding is that the British system Montesqquieu would have been familiar with had more separation of the legislative and executive branches than today. Under the settlement reached in 1688 the King was an independent executive, constrained by parliament but not expected to act only or even often on their advice – more like the relationship between the US President and congress. The present system evolved over time and by moving the exercise of powers that still formally belong to the crown to ministers who are MPs eroded much of that original separation.Report

    • NobAkimoto NobAkimoto in reply to Matty says:

      The biggest watersheds in British separation of powers were the Reform Act of 1832 which eventually made for a more representative Commons (and thus increased democratic legitimacy) and the Parliament Act of 1911. I mean it wasn’t all that rare for monarchs up to and including William IV to dismiss a ministry and prorogue parliament. That said, once the Exchequer and Treasury were in Commons hands, it was a matter of time before the Lords and the Crown both eventually lost their powers.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to NobAkimoto says:

        I think as a practical matter seeing the Queen as the executive is not a particularly useful way to understand modern British government. Seems to me that the judiciary is semi-independent of the Commons (better after 2005 than before but Parliament is still sovereign).

        The true executive is the Prime Minister, who is also the head of the legislature. If a decision needs to be made RIGHT NOW, it’s the P.M. who does it, not the Queen. And he acts first and gets the blessing of Parliament for it later and the Queen just sort of waves her hands at it because governance really isn’t in her skill set. (Diplomacy is within her skill set, to her credit, and I don’t mean just protocol, although serious diplomacy is done by ministers and not royals.)

        The Queen and the Lords appear to have very little actual political power in the overt sense after 1911; at best they have some public profile and charisma if they weigh in on stuff, but they pretty much aren’t welcome to do so anymore. So I’d classify Britain as having a low degree of separation of powers.

        Still, with the exception of a decidedly dubious set of laws concerning defamation, I’d say that the UK is a very free nation.Report

    • Avatar Matty in reply to Matty says:

      @burt-likko That is part of the point I was trying to make. The present Queen is *not* an executive, William IV was and he was more independent of parliament. The history of executive power moving to the Prime minister is also the history of the executive and legislative branches loosing the separation they once had.
      @murali I’m trying to think now, is 1911 the last example of a king significantly getting involved in politics? As I recall the Parliament Act only passed the Lords because King George created enough new Lords who would vote for itReport

  8. Avatar Citizen says:

    Maybe the degree of seperation of power has bearing. If the power were seperated 1:1 per citizen, how would the Freedom House scores reflect the resulting freedom?

    There is much written of the power of the people, but it is rarely exercised.Report

    • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Citizen says:

      That’s a good question, and I’ve thought about it, but it would take a heck of a lot of research effort to establish a good basis for determining degrees of separation. There are enough variants in the type of offices and connections between branches that can be made, that I’m not sure how anyone would actually be able to disentangle them. We might have almost as many cases as we have categories, making any analysis pretty meaningless. Which isn’t to say there’s no there there in your question, just that answering it could prove devilishly tricky.Report

      • Avatar Citizen in reply to James Hanley says:

        Alright, lets put it this way:
        if a individual had complete power over their own governance, then what would their perceived degree of freedom be.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to James Hanley says:

        I imagine that the answers to that would be as varied as cultures tend to be.

        “I don’t have to pay taxes above and beyond fees for the services I require, when I require them, I don’t have to pay tribute to any governors in time, respect, or cash. I am master of my fate, I am captain of my soul! Now, pardon me, I have to dig for an outhouse and a well, but not in that order.”

        “I don’t have health care, I don’t have the required $200,000 to get a college degree, and my job is not personally fulfilling on any level whatsoever. If this is freedom, I’d like to explore having a lot less of it.”Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

        I’m not following, I’m afraid. How does that relate to separation of powers?Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to James Hanley says:

        If the power were seperated 1:1 per citizen, I am certain that some citizens would have a perceived degree of freedom of “This Is Everything Liberty Was Supposed To Be (As Seen On Television!)” while others would see the exact same things as downright constraining.

        It’s not like we can have a formula where we say “if powers were *THIS* separate, then people would respond thusly.”

        There are as many different responses as there are cultures. Maybe more. (On top of that, I don’t know how we’d go about saying whether any given response was appropriate or inappropriate.)Report

      • Avatar Citizen in reply to James Hanley says:

        Well, lets just confine it to the Freedom House scoring measures?Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to James Hanley says:

        Freedom House Methodology here:

        I’m running into bumps when I get to stuff like “Is there a significant opposition vote and a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?” or “Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?”, but, for the most part, 1:1 seems pretty good.Report

      • Avatar Citizen in reply to James Hanley says:

        The bumps make it a fun exercise in mad hattery.Report

  9. Avatar Jim Heffman says:

    Does this take into account executive arbrogation of nominally-legislative power?

    i.e. “all cars must include rear-view cameras on account of someone at the DOT thinks they’re a good idea, even though there is no actual law passed that says anything about rear-view cameras.”Report

    • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Jim Heffman says:


      And to pick a nit, that’s less executive aggrandizement than congressional delegation (or if you prefer, abdication) of power. Within bounds, such delegation is legitimate.Report

  10. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    There is a lot of historical evidence to show that separation of powers and federalism have nothing to do with the degree of tyranny or freedom in a given country. Many other countries that adopted our model of seperation of powers tended to fall into Presidential dictatorships. The United States managed to build up an impressive national security state because wars on communism, drugs, and terrorism. During the hey-day of American federalism, states all across the United States and not just in the South got away with racist laws and policies against people of color. It took federal intervention to end slavery and civil rights abuses.Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to LeeEsq says:

      This doesn’t mean that Madison was wrong, necessarily.

      A) It means that technology overtook him. When it took the better part of an hour for a bill reported out of Congress to get to the President even on horseback and even when he was in town, and you couldn’t rely on having a quorum of members of Congress even there to get work done at any given time, and the courts were made of judges who rode circuits, separating powers would certainly prevent the government from doing too much stuff too quickly. And baked in to the reasoning is the idea that whenever the government acts at all, freedom is restricted somewhat. Perhaps in a desirable way; Madison conceded the necessity of government and laws and rules; but it’s still the government doing stuff.

      B) The purpose of separation of powers may not be to stop the government from acting or to substantively prevent the government from doing something that restricts freedom in the abstract sense. The purpose may well be to force people of different political perspectives to deliberate on an idea before adopting it into law. That, it seems to me, is still very much in play, and very much to our ongoing advantage. This, however, does not particularly mean that we will be any more or less free: separation of powers is meant to make us wise, not to make us free.Report

  11. Avatar James K says:

    I think there’s a dimension of Separation of Powers that isn’t really captured here. The Westminster system may not have a proper separation between Legislature and Executive, but it has a separation within the Executive Branch that is very important – the separation between elected an unelected members of the Executive.

    For example, while the New Zealand Police Force falls under the warrant of the Minister of Police, the Minister has no authority to direct the police in their law enforcement role, this acts as a check against political interference in law enforcement. Several other agencies have legislated independence from Ministerial interference, and government policy advisors have a duty to provide “free and frank” advice to their Minister, and Ministers have no hiring, firing or pay authority over government Departments so as to protect that independence.Report

    • Avatar James Hanley in reply to James K says:

      So other than the separation within the executive, @james-k, would you say there’s any separation in the NZ political system? Would you classify it as weak or none?Report

      • Avatar James K in reply to James Hanley says:


        The judiciary is definitely separated, rather better than in the US I think. One of the complicating factors is that without any superior legislation, our institutions of separation are cultural rather than legally enforceable. For that reason I’d call our separation weak, and I’d say the same of the UK.Report

  12. Avatar Damon says:

    “The concept behind separation of powers is to prevent tyranny by not allowing political power to accumulate in the hands of a small number of people. In the U.S. we tend to see it as absolutely critical to liberty.”

    Yes, we do. For whatever reason, it didn’t work, because “political power to accumulate in the hands of a small number of people” is exactly what we got. Maybe you could say it “worked” in that the small number of people here is greater than in a dictatorship or such, but that’s just a issue of magnitude.Report

    • Avatar Gabriel Conroy in reply to Damon says:


      I guess my follow up question is, would it be worse if we had our separation of powers were weaker than they are now?Report

    • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Damon says:


      My perspective is that our biggest problem is executive aggrandizement. It’s entirely possible, I think, that if we hadn’t separated the executive we wouldn’t have that problem. Keep in mind that the era of restrained presidents was the era in which Congressional leaders controlled the selection of presidential candidates. It’s been since that control broke down that the executive has become increasingly more powerful.Report

    • Avatar Road Scholar in reply to Damon says:

      @damon , I have to push back on this a bit. What small number of people is the political power concentrated upon? Can you name them? If I trie would our lists coincide?

      While it’s true that the machinery of government is vested in a relatively small number of offices relative to the population, with the exception of the judiciary the actual people holding those offices changes with some regularity, the Strom Thurmonds and Charlie Rangels notwithstanding.Report

      • Avatar Damon in reply to Road Scholar says:

        Road, the people I’m talking about are: congress and staff, adminstration and staff, the top level federal ‘crats, SCOTUS, the lobbyists, top level military, etc. This constitutes quite a significant number of people, but vs the entire country’s population, it’s still a very small group, and there is little turnover. What turnover is revolving door.Report

  13. Avatar Roger says:


    If I am following , you are looking at separation at the federal level. Does this capture the dimension of separation between federal and state powers? How does this dimension play out? Or is that another topic?Report

    • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Roger says:

      No, this particular focus is just at the federal level, because that’s where we use the term separation of powers, and that’s what Montesquieu and James Madison were focusing on. Federalism is a separation of powers, too, and also can be argued for as important to limiting government, but we do treat it as a separate issue.Report

  14. Avatar Road Scholar says:

    Thought provoking as always, @james-hanley . It seems to me that a lot hinges on one’s personal notions of what “freedom” and “tyranny” mean. If you and I have different definitions or weightings of this necessarily composite variable we’re going to judge societies very differently. For instance, to you and I, an official prayer to open a government meeting is clearly a freedom fail. But to many religious folks a prohibition on such is the real tyranny. This sort of exercise seems difficult to carry out objectively and non-controversially.

    I tend to think that freedom is a very subjectively determined experience and the determinants are an outgrowth of more general cultural norms than particular governance structures. IOW, government reflects society and a liberal society will tend toward liberal governance mostly regardless of the institutional structures.Report

    • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Road Scholar says:

      True enough. But thay’s why I chose the Freedom House scores. Although not immune to critique, I’m sure, they’re the most broadly accepted numbers I know of, and at least no one can say I’m making up my own biased numbers.Report

  15. Avatar Road Scholar says:

    @james-hanley : Did you catch the op-ed in the WaPo this morning by Ron Johnson (Republican senator) and Jonathan Turley (liberal academic) regarding the eroding separation of powers? Doesn’t add much of anything to what you said, actually it’s only obliquely related, but you’re not the only one talking about this.Report