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Checks and balances

From dKosopedia

In politics, the principle of checks and balances underlies many democratic governments. The term was coined by Montesquieu during the Enlightenment. The principle is an outgrowth of the classical idea of separation of powers. The first national system of checks and balances was outlined by the United States Constitution in 1789.

One method of implementing a check and balance system involves the interplay between different "branches" of government. Taken as a whole, such a government might be said to have an effective system of checks and balances if no one branch of government holds total power and each branch can be overridden by another.

The system of checks and balances has two components. The right to check and the means to actively balance out imbalances. Checking requires access to information and the right to question. Balancing requires a mechanism of control to prevent the branches from overstepping their constitutional limits of power. Difficulties arise in states where the branches can block each other to the extent of bringing the whole government to a standstill.

Three branch government

In most states with a three-branch government, the process of checks and balances works in a manner similar to this:

In this way the different powers of government are isolated from each other so that no branch has total power over all the functions of government. An attack on or abuse of power by individuals of a single branch will not lead to tyranny or the fall of the entire government.

Independent government agencies

Certain countries divide power further by creating government agencies that should theoretically be attached to the executive branch, but have a status ensuring their independence from political pressure. Typically, such status may be conferred on:

In addition, the executive may have reduced authority on certain of its employees. For instance, university professors and scientific researchers in public administrations may be protected from interventions of the executive, since they are supposed to discharge their mission with objectivity. This is for instance the case in France. The idea is that those employees have a duty of objective information with respect to the public; some objective scientific information may contradict the interests or ideology of the executive or its supporters. Those employees therefore act as a check on the executive.


In democratic states, some amount of checking is frequently done by an independent press. Because of its ability to research independently of government interests, bring issues to public awareness and thus influence voters' perception, it plays an important role in the system of checks and balances. Many imbalances of power have only been addressed by the branches of government after a "scandal" was discovered by the press. Although the press is not a branch of power in the constitutional sense, it is sometimes referred to as the "fourth branch of power" or "fourth estate" because of its influence on political processes. However, the term 'fourth estate' has nothing to do with the three-branch system of government, and refers to the press being an extra 'estate' in addition to the three estates which paricipated in the Assemblies in seventeenth-century France: the first estate (the clergy ), the second estate (the aristocracy) and the third estate (the serfs) (see Estates of the realm).

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This page was last modified 17:07, 3 July 2006 by Chad Lupkes. Based on work by dKosopedia user(s) Lestatdelc. Content is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.

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