Checks and Balances.
Yes, yes, we’ve all heard the term. And, many of us even know that “Checks and Balances” are in the American Constitution and in the foundational documents of other nations as well. But why? Are they really necessary? Aren’t “checks and balances” simply something that “gets in the way” and “slows things down”?
Let’s see whether “Checks and Balances” are found in other types of systems. Consider a physical system. For instance, in your home, you likely have some source of electricity. Electricity is very useful. It can run refrigerators, TV’s, computers, water pumps, and toasters. If your home is to be safe, its electrical system includes fuses or circuit breakers. Why?
Basically, a fuse or circuit breaker is there to prevent damage. If you are running an electric motor; e.g., like a drill or a garbage disposal, the motor might get “stuck.” Without a fuse or circuit breaker, the motor will draw more and more current and burn out the motor. Wires can also become frayed, commonly due to rodents eating the insulation, which for some reason, they love. If wire insulation is too frayed, the two ends of a circuit can become directly connected (a “short circuit”) and since the resistance becomes nearly zero, the amperage rises tremendously causing more and more heat which can easily cause a fire.
Home electrical fires in America account for an estimated 51,000 fires each year, nearly 500 deaths, more than 1,400 injuries, and $1.3 billion in property damage.
(See https://www.esfi.org/resource/home-electrical-fires-184 for more details).
Yes, electricity is a useful tool! But where there is power and energy, there is also danger. Power and energy must be limited. That’s why your home has fuses or circuit breakers. The idea is that the current must pass through the fuse or circuit breaker and if too much current starts to flow it burns out the fuse (typically a small piece of copper) or “trips” the circuit breaker causing it to shut off current. Your car also has fuses and for much the same reason.
Your automobile has many “checks and balances.” There is not only an accelerator; it also possesses brakes! Imagine a car that had an accelerator but no brakes. One of the scariest things that can happen when you’re driving is to have the accelerator get “stuck” in the accelerating position. It happened to me once. Even pressing on the brakes hard isn’t enough to slow the car. Or, at least it didn’t seem to do much for me. I was driving an automatic and needed to put the car in neutral. The engine still raced but at least the car slowed down. I kept tapping the accelerator with my foot and eventually it became “unstuck.”
Nuclear power plants, elevators, cranes, and so on all have “Checks and Balances” built into them to minimize the chances of a catastrophe when something goes wrong.
Biological systems, however, sweep the Academy Awards in the category “Checks and Balances.” In fact, life itself can be thought of as energy systems with highly evolved “Checks and Balances.” These “Checks and Balances” happen at the chemical level, at the level of tiny organelles inside a cell, at the level of cells, and at the level of individual bodies such as you and I have. If we get too cold, our hair stands on end and we shiver. Those things warm us up. If we get too hot, we sweat and our skin gets flushed. These two things cool us down.
If our blood sugar level falls too far, we get hungry. We feel like eating. We eat. We digest food and our blood sugar level goes up. If it does up too fast, our body releases insulin which tends to bring it back down.
By and large, these “Checks and Balances” work remarkably well. In some special circumstances, they fail for one reason or another. For instance, if we get addicted to opioids of any kind, we feel “better” after we take the opioids. We also become more “tolerant” of the drug. To feel “better” will require ever higher doses. When you quit, you feel worse and taking more of the drug makes you feel better.
For some, gambling, sex, alcohol, and crime itself can function the same way. Many who rob a liquor store are doing it to get the money. But some of the people who rob a liquor store are partly doing it for the thrill. They enjoy doing something criminal in and of itself. Similarly, greediness can serve as an addictive drug. Being unfair and cruel, for such people, is not just the means to an end (e.g., becoming richer). It is the end itself.
For such a person, taking more than their share of donuts isn’t just about having more donuts. The addictive joy is also in seeing others angry or miserable or hungry. The “Checks and Balances” in such a person are not working well at all. They need to wreak more and more cruelty on others in order to feel “okay” again.
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, cancer is essentially greed at the cellular level. A cell somewhere in the body is no longer satisfied with its “normal” nutritional allocation. It is no longer content to perform its function as a muscle cell, brain cell, liver cell or skin cell. Instead, it “decides” that it will no longer perform its actual function. Rather, it is now “demanding” more and more resources from the rest of the body and its only function becomes increasing its own power and control over the rest of the body. Normally, cell growth and reproduction are also controlled by “Checks and Balances.” In fact, when cells become damaged and can no longer function, the body’s immune system normally recognizes that and destroys them. In cancer, however, the sick and greedy cell manages to “convince” the other cells that “everything’s normal” and those cancer cells grow without bound. As the tumor grows, it sucks up more and more of the body’s resources until the whole body dies — including, guess who? The ugly tumorous cancer cells grow without bound because “Checks and Balances” no longer work on them. Cancer cells cannot do anything “useful” for themselves. They are only able to suck value from the host body. So once they kill the host, cancer dies too.
Original drawing by Pierce Morgan
“Checks and Balances” are also meant to work in complex social and political systems. For instance, in a democracy, if people are elected and they provide no value to the political body they represent, they will be voted out, in principle. But what if instead of providing value to the body as a whole, they provide value to a very few, very rich people? What if, in return for funneling the resources to those very rich donors, the rich donors help make sure that the candidate gets re-elected — again, and again, and again — even though those politicians only benefit a few. “Checks and Balances” have now failed.
One important society system of “Checks and Balances” is the legal system. Imagine that there were no legal system — no police, no judges, no prosecutors, no juries, no laws. Now, imagine that someone robbed you or harmed your children. What would you do? You wouldn’t go to the police because they wouldn’t exist in such a system. Or, worse, they would be utterly corrupt. Some people would “turn the other cheek” but most people would set out to seek their own justice. They’d steal something of equal or greater value. They would harm the law-breaker’s children. And, it would often happen that they would not only get “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” but they would try to get “two eyes for an eye” and “two teeth for a tooth.” And, without “Checks and Balances”, who would stop them? The kin of the first criminal would try to stop them and sometimes succeed and sometimes fail. Without agreed upon “Checks and Balances,” crime, violence, rape, theft, would continue to escalate.
Eventually, like cancer, the violence would die. There would be nothing left worth stealing; no-one left living to rape or kill. So, like cancer, the violence would destroy everything of value and then would fizzle out because there would be nothing left to “feed on.”
A functioning system of “Checks and Balances” results in houses that don’t burn down, bodies that grow strong and reproduce, and societies that prosper. What happens when we destroy the “Checks and Balances”? In the case of a house, in the old days, we could replace your fuses with a copper penny. A copper penny is much thicker than the thin wire in a fuse. It’s very likely we would end up burning your house down. Cells without “Checks and Balances” form cancer. People whose behavior lacks “Checks and Balances” become addicted, often to self-defeating behavior. Societies without “Checks and Balances” become, quite naturally, more and more unbalanced. This, in turn, leads to violent revolution (as happened in the American, French, and Russian revolution) or being overrun by other countries (as happened in ancient Rome).
There are several main types of action that we can take to try to prevent the destruction of our own society. To the extent that any official “Checks and Balances” still exist, we can throw our own energy into slamming on the emergency brake. We can vote. We can encourage others to do the same.
We can try to “disconnect” the source of power from the “car.” We can push for impeachments, indictments, recusals, article 25 invocations. We can encourage others to do the same.
We can also try to perform actions that “should be” part of the normal “Checks and Balances” by ourself. If some group of people are being unfairly targeted for instance, we can go out of our way to make that unfairness less unfair. We can encourage others to do the same.
If one group of people is amassing power and wealth in an uncontrolled fashion, we can individually resist letting more of our own power and wealth get into their hands. We can encourage others to do the same.
We can voice our opposition to a cancerous and corrupt system that has destroyed “Checks and Balances.” We can encourage others to do the same.
Author Page on Amazon.
A parable about the logical outcomes of unfettered greed and lying.
An essay about why cancer must die.
A Sci-Fi story about an AI system without proper Checks and Balances.