Trias Politica

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Montesquieu’s theory

‘I would like to examine how the three powers (executive, legislative, and judiciary) are divided among all moderated forms of government we know, and in this way it would be possible for each institution to check its political liberty.’ This was what Montesquieu wrote in his famous treatise ‘The Spirit of the Laws’, published in 1748.

In this book Montesquieu described the relation between the sustainable quality of a society and a balanced distribution of political functions within that society. In this respect, according to Montesquieu, the political powers should be distributed as follows among groups and organs of the society:

  • Management, time and effort, put into the acquisition of public support for the actions of the government, are in balance with the required speed and decisiveness of these actions (‘support-decisiveness-balance’, democracy versus effectiveness, legitimacy versus governability)
  • Actors involved are asked to deliver ‘doable’ effort (feasibility principle)
  • An imminent abuse of power by one actor can be blocked by the others (principle of checks and balances)

Montesquieu’s ‘formula’ for the organisation of a sustainable and democratic society has to a large extent determined the organisation of many ‘modern’ parliamentary democracies. However, this formula provides some challenging questions: is it still applicable nowadays? Does it perhaps require adjustment or addition? Are there nowadays better theories to think of? Or have we simply lost sight of some aspects of this formula?

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