‘Checks and balances’ is code for complicity

One of the ‘features’ of the U.S. system of governance is supposedly that it offers checks and balances. At the top, we are told as schoolchildren, the executive, legislative, and judiciary branches all balance each other, and will check each other’s authority. Which of course explains legislative and, generally, judicial complicity with torture, other war crimes, the invasion of Iraq, the fraud that led to the financial crisis of 2007, etc.

A little lower down, bureaucracies are supposed to check the industries they’re supposed to regulate. Like with BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill. Like with the New York Federal Reserve Bank and Wall Street.

Even further down, the judiciary is supposed to check and balance police officers. In fact, courts are rarely sufficiently critical of police testimony.[1] And, as we have seen in recent days, the legendary ability of prosecutors to persuade grand juries to “indict a ham sandwich” was nowhere in evidence in the cases of two cops accused of murdering Black men.[2] And there only barely seems to be any check at all on civil asset forfeitures.[3]

The first thing we need to understand is that “checks and balances” is code for complicity. In an individualistic, competitive society that reduces nearly all value to market value, and judges people only rarely for their integrity and much more often for their ability to consume, the incentives that a system of “checks and balances” relies upon are all wrong. It simply cannot work.

More fundamentally, the idea that a “balance” is a solid means of building a society is flawed. One would not build a building that way. The first wind to come along would topple it. One builds a building in an entirely different way, with a solid structure constructed of pieces that reinforce each other.

We need to build our society in a solid way, not with a nonsensical set of values that sets everyone against each other, that retards or even reverses adult development,[4] and that in fact induces multiple forms of psychopathology.[5]

But that would require maturity.

  1. [1]Dan Simon, In Doubt: The Psychology of the Criminal Justice Process (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 2012).
  2. [2]Jonathan Cohn, “What We Still Don’t Know About Ferguson—and Probably Never Will,” New Republic, December 1, 2014, http://www.newrepublic.com/article/120443/ferguson-prosecutor-and-witness-testimony-bias-and-lots-ambiguity; Monica Davey and Julie Bosman, “Protests After Ferguson Officer Is Not Indicted,” New York Times, November 24, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/25/us/ferguson-darren-wilson-shooting-michael-brown-grand-jury.html; Eugene Robinson, “The Eric Garner case’s sickening outcome,” Washington Post, December 3, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/eugene-robinson-the-eric-garner-cases-sickening-outcome/2014/12/03/283c0e02-7b5c-11e4-b821-503cc7efed9e_story.html
  3. [3]Shaila Dewan, “Police Use Department Wish List When Deciding Which Assets to Seize,” New York Times, November 9, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/10/us/police-use-department-wish-list-when-deciding-which-assets-to-seize.html; Robert O’Harrow, Jr., and Michael Sallah, “They fought the law. Who won? Many drivers faced a long ordeal in court to try to get their money back from police,” Washington Post, September 8, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/investigative/2014/09/08/they-fought-the-law-who-won/; Robert O’Harrow, Jr., and Michael Sallah, “Police intelligence targets cash: Reports on drivers, training by firm fueled law enforcement aggressiveness,” Washington Post, September 7, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/investigative/2014/09/07/police-intelligence-targets-cash/; Michael Sallah, Robert O’Harrow, Jr., and Steven Rich, “Stop and seize: Aggressive police take hundreds of millions of dollars from motorists not charged with crimes,” Washington Post, September 6, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/investigative/2014/09/06/stop-and-seize/; Sarah Stillman, “Taken,” New Yorker, August 12, 2013, http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2013/08/12/130812fa_fact_stillman
  4. [4]Tim Kasser, Steve Cohn, Allen D. Kanner, and Richard M. Ryan, “Some Costs of American Corporate Capitalism: A Psychological Exploration of Value and Goal Conflicts,” Psychological Inquiry 38, no. 1 (2007): 1-22.
  5. [5]Erich Fromm, The Sane Society (1956; repr., Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon, UK: Routledge, 2010).

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