Executive, legislative, and judicial — the three branches of government, right? That’s what we learned in school. And it’s true, those are the legally established branches. But they aren’t the only ones.
Defined in a realistic, not a schoolbook way, a branch of government is a political power that is so continuously and firmly influential as both to instigate its own coercive programs and to veto the programs of others, including other branches of government. By this definition, the American government currently consists not of three but of at least six branches.
Generation after generation, the heritage media have advised and staffed the executive branch and have planned and directed public policy.
You can try numbering the branches for yourself, but I would add, to the usual three, the three following: the heritage media, the professional bureaucracy, and the taxpayer-financed social orgs and lobbies.
Start with the heritage media. For countless other organs of pseudo-public opinion, the New York Times and the other historically significant media still identify what is news and how to slant it, what the government is for and what the government should do. Generation after generation, the heritage media have advised and staffed the executive branch and have planned and directed public policy as much as any Secretary of State or Treasury or Health and Human Services could possibly do. So much for the fourth branch of government.
The existence of a fifth branch has been established beyond any possibility of doubt by the past ten years’ revelations of the power, tenacity, and guileful self-confidence of the IRS, FBI, CIA, and other secret agencies. For many years, no president has really been in control of them, and the war between them and the current president has demonstrated that they have the power of veto.
Now for the lobbies and institutional pressure groups, the sixth branch of government. For more than 150 years they have been denounced as a “hidden government,” but now you can drop the “hidden.” Many of them, such as Planned Parenthood, the anti-drug organizations, the anti-smoking organizations, the police and firefighter lobbies, the mental health consortiums, the legal services providers, the farmers’ organizations, the education associations, the “nongovernmental” welfare services groups — you are welcome to expand the list — are supported by taxpayer money, in the form of grants for “research” and “services” and the “training” of the subject population. Others are supported and empowered by their provision of “experienced’ and “professional” staff for government functions, including the writing of laws. They stock the regulatory boards and the credentialing boards; they provide the public service announcements on TV and radio; they provide the press releases recited without skepticism by the comfort animals of the press; they provide the bullet points for the resumes by which politicians try to establish their bona fides. You know the template: “I worked closely with the National Association for X in developing new programs to deal with the grave national problem of Y.” The one thing you can count on is that none of these well-funded, well-placed, and doubtless well-intentioned organizations advocates a smaller role for government.
Regardless of whatever is currently on the list, it seems inevitable that the self-appointed job of any branch of government will be to increase its power at the expense of individual liberty.
If I were writing this 50 years ago, I might have added to the list of branches the labor unions and the churches. But with union membership hovering around 11% and the churches unable to keep either their flocks or their alliances together, both of these would-be branches can be labeled former — and they’re pretty bitter about it, too.
But regardless of whatever is currently on the list, it seems inevitable that the self-appointed job of any branch of government will be to increase its power at the expense of individual liberty. The framers of the Constitution knew that. They therefore designed branches of government that could put the brakes on one another. And, although I’m not aware that the framers said so, it’s the tendency of every large organization to develop its own internal brakes, its own internal dissent and competition. This can also be an aid to the liberty of men and women who want to live their lives without being told what to do.
But how does the situation stand right now? We have an executive branch, personified in Donald Trump, that is better at generating internal dissent and competition than anyone could have dreamed. We have a judicial branch whose members are utterly incapable of reading the same page in the same way. We have a legislature locked in the death struggle between the two great parties, each of which is locked in a death struggle with its own suicidal impulses.
By contrast, the heritage media, the grand array of lobby groups, and the federal bureaucracy are bent on maintaining their power and cohesion until the end, the bitter, bitter end. Bitter for you and me.