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November 28, 2018

"Friction by Design" – The Separation of Powers

"The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elected, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny."

James Madison, The Federalist Papers

Separation of Powers

It's one of the basics of American governance and civics education. What are the three branches of government? Hopefully everyone answered the legislative, executive, and judicial branches. The legislative branch enacts laws and appropriates money to operate the government. The executive branch administers public policy enacted and funded by the legislative branch. The judicial branch interprets the Constitution and laws, applying their interpretations to cases brought before it.

The separation of powers has many purposes. Politically, it prevents autocracy and provides "checks and balances" across the government. Practically, it helps to reduce inefficiencies with each branch having specific duties (although some responsibilities overlap and some inefficiencies check power among branches.) Not all powers are exclusive or explicitly assigned, with the executive and legislative branches sharing responsibilities in areas such as foreign affairs, military operations, and trade. What the Founding Fathers created was a "friction by design" that allows American government to evolve with time and issues challenging the nation.

Did You Know …

There was a form of representative government in the American colonies? Colonial governors were appointed by the British government, but members of the colonial legislatures were chosen by the colonists. As a result, this separation of power was considered as a basic element of liberty.

Schoolhouse Rock

Did You Know …

The U.S. Constitution was greatly inspired by a Frenchman? The 18th century political philosopher Charles-Louis de Secondat – aka Montesquieu – coined the term "trias politica" (separation of powers) and distinguished political authority between legislative, executive, and judicial powers.

Did You Know …

School House Rock, the iconic short-form animated educational shorts from the 1970s and 80s, ran a 12-episode series on American civics (including the separation of powers) called "America Rock"? Most of the episodes coincided with the American Bicentennial.

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