Lieven's Blog

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A need for a revision of the separation of powers?

Clipboard with Pencil_16x16A fundamental principle in democratic governance is the trias politica, or the separation of powers. Many democratic states are therefore divided into three branches, a judiciary, a legislature and an executive power. Although there are differences among countries in the way that the trias politica is organized, the reason it is implemented is the same: when a single person or group has too much power, they could become dangerous to citizens. The separation of power is a method to prevent (or make it more difficult) to abuse power.

One of the leading thinkers about this was the French philosopher Montesquieu who wrote about it in his famous book “The Spirit of the Laws” in 1748. Recently I wonder what Montesquieu would have said about the trias politica, if he would have written about it in the twenty-first century? In the current age he would discover that at least two other strong powers could be potentially threatening the (welfare of the) citizens and our democracy.

The first one are the financial markets. From what is happening in the recent years (especially in Europe) I start to have the impression that we vote (in a democratic way) for political leaders that afterwards are forced to do what the financial markets dictate. When ratings by Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s and Stock Market data are significantly influencing political decisions, are we then not speaking of a power next to the three traditional ones? We might wonder how “a power” from outside the democratic game has become so influential. As members of a democracy we have not voted for this power, but yet it is influencing our governance. The impact of the business world on politics and governance has always existed but the recent dominance of business over governance is what worries me as a democratic thinking person. What would Montesquieu say about this? Maybe he would come up with a method that separates the financial and economical power from the democratic governance? There are too many examples where “the government” and “the financial and economic markets” are interwoven. When a presidential campaign costs hundreds of millions of dollars, how can it be done without the strong support/influence from the business world? When politicians have their say in the boards of large (financial) corporations how can they separate what is good for the country and what is good for their corporation? The cynicists may say that it can’t be done, but generations before us have implemented the separation of church and state. The church was also once an institute that was strongly interwoven with all aspects of government.

The second power is (and has been for decades) the media. The difference now is that it has become a public domain. Everyone can publish his ideas, thoughts and opinions with the speed of light via twitter, blogs, youtube, online news sites etc. and in this way influence public opinions and eventually manipulate them. Because I favor the democratic system and the freedom of speech, I welcome these new media. We all know that the power of the new social media has played an important role in overthrowing the regimes during the ongoing “Arab Spring”. However it has also shown us that if with the help of the social media, dictators can lose their power, it can just as well bring down other regimes even the democratic ones. Changing the public opinion for non-democratic reasons has become a potential threat.

As much as I believe in freedom, I believe that freedom without directions leads to chaos. Education at our schools about the new freedom of expression is crucial to ensure that this wonderful thing called social media will serve freedom and exchange of ideas instead of fostering bullying, hate, disinformation, intolerance and coward attacks on other’s ideas and opinions.

Another important role has to be played by the “traditional media” in the so called free world. In this age, they have an even more important duty to provide as “objective” and well researched information as possible. Ethics in the media, in an over-informed world has only become more important. Not just for the sake of being ethical, but for the sake of providing the people in the (democratic) world with correct information. The recent successes of online versions of newspapers like “The New York Times” are therefore important. They need to be present in the online world. The experience and the reliability of news institutes like these are crucial for the functioning of a democracy. We are all free to believe what we want, but we need reliable and independent sources of information. Freedom of press is not enough, the information has to be reliable. There is no such thing as complete objective information, but as Allen H. Neuharth, founder of the Newseum in Washington state it:” The First Amendment guaranteed a free press. We in the media must make sure it is a fair one.” A quote that is now more important then ever.

We might debate if Montesquieu’s principles need an update that integrates the new realities of the twenty-first century? It is however a certainty that politicians who are dictated by the financial markets can’t be true democratic leaders. And if the three separated powers are the vital organs of a democracy, then a free and reliable information for the citizens is the blood that keeps the democracy alive. (909 words)

If you would like to react on this thought, please feel free to use the contact page or contact me via twitter.