The following is a summary and excerpt from a recent newspaper column by David Hasey:
James Madison, in the “Federalist Paper #51” expressed this sequence of ideas: If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. He concludes that since neither is the case we must have governments and that they must have a system of checks and balances in order to function well. In effect, he is saying that since we are not divine, and therefore can’t be counted upon to always do what is right, we need a government. At the same time, since those who govern are also not divine, we must have a system of checks and balances to keep them from abusing their power. Alternative political parties, other branches of government and regulatory agencies fill this role in society. Madison goes on to say that “experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.” There are too many people throughout history who have abused their position in government for Madison to be optimistic about the future.
But if ethical responsibility and public morality have gone by the wayside, a carefully designed system of limited government with checks and balances in jeopardized. As John Mark Reynolds noted in a recent article “Without morality on the individual level, no laws, contracts, or rules will help our society. Bad men will always find a way to cheat.” Without a moral sense, there is nothing within a person to which he can hold himself accountable. The only deterrent becomes the fear of getting caught. As one’s power and prestige increase even the fear of exposure diminishes. This leads to the corrupting atmosphere, whether in ancient Greece or modern America. As a society continues to lose its moral stance, there will be less and less to keep people from acting badly.
The technical sophistication of a legal safeguards against the abuse of power by those in government relies on ethical convictions for their power.