In most countries, government is divided into legislative, executive and judicial branch.

For what reasons is this division to prevalant? Why isn't government divided in some other way (e.g. there could be financial branch, internal affairs branch, etc.)?

I wasn't able to answer this question on my own and all the resources I was able to find were descriptive rather than analytical.

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    Have you performed a functional analysis on what a generic government must be capable of doing? Nov 18, 2016 at 15:08
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    One more resource: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Montesquieu
    – SJuan76
    Nov 18, 2016 at 15:23
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    Separation of powers, and checks-and-balances. Subject matter expertise striping does not achieve the former at all, and barely achieves the latter. "why so prevalent"? Because in practice, it is shown to work.
    – user4012
    Nov 18, 2016 at 15:24
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    Considering the roots of this idea date back to literally ancient Greece, an analytical answer could easily take a whole book. And the descriptive answers you could find will also serve as good places to identify additional sources.
    – MSalters
    Nov 18, 2016 at 15:31
  • For examining the premise of your question, google: "government functional analysis." A specific example would be Nepal's transition from unitary to federal government. moad.gov.np/uploads/files/FunctionalAnalysisandAssignment.pdf Nov 18, 2016 at 15:44

2 Answers 2


Why isn't government divided in some other way (e.g. there could be financial branch, internal affairs branch, etc.)?

Who decides what is what? For example, if a bank bribes a government employee with money collected illegally. Is that investigated by the financial branch or the internal affairs branch? What if both claim jurisdiction? Or neither? Who decides?

Note that this is problematic even in the traditional separation, which is much clearer. In the United States (US), the executive writes regulations, which are effectively laws--the province of the legislative branch. The legislature writes explicit instructions for things like the timing of traffic lights funded by a spending bill--the province of the executive branch. The judicial branch writes decisions that explain what is and is not legal, establishing standards used in other cases--the province of the legislative branch. The legislative branch gives arbitration powers to the executive branch--the province of the judicial branch.

The advantage of the traditional separation is that each has certain things that only it can do. Only the judicial branch can adjudicate law suits. Only the legislative branch can write the original laws. Only the executive can hire police to enforce laws outside the legislative and judicial branches (which have some ability to police themselves). Neither the legislative nor judicial branches can order the military to do things. They can only restrict. The executive can order the military but is subject to legal restrictions written by the legislative and adjudicated by the courts.

The executive can enforce laws differently than the legislative expected. If the judicial agrees with the legislative then the executive either complies or is out of bounds on the law. If the executive is out of bounds, the legislative can impeach and remove the head of the executive. Or if the judicial agrees with the executive, the legislative can change the laws to match what it thinks should happen. That's what we mean by checks and balances.

Separating by topic causes issues. Note for example that the Homeland Security department in the US originally came to be because the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) were restricted from each other's purview. The CIA can only act in foreign countries. The FBI can only investigate domestically. But terrorists could come from foreign countries and act in the US. The cooperation between the CIA and FBI was weak in that situation, and neither was fully responsible when they failed. Each could blame the other and be at least partially correct.

In that case, both were part of the executive (as is the new department), so at some level they all were part of the same organization. What if there was a domestic executive and a foreign affairs executive? Then someone else would have to decide. That someone else would have to have a lot of authority over the other two. What would be the check and balance on that power?

Perhaps there is an answer, but it's not obvious what it might be. So countries stick with the tried and true separation of powers with the established checks and balances.


In the standard separation of power, the legislative branch makes laws, the judicial branch interprets them and the executive branch applies them (in theory. Most real-world political systems have some overlap between their branches).

To understand the reasoning behind this, let's compare this with a much simpler alternative: an absolutist monarchy where all three powers are in the hands of the king. The king makes laws, commands the people who apply them and judges who violated them. This gives the king quite a lot of power. This power can easily be abused. For example, if the king breaks his own laws, he can order his men not to investigate the matter, and even when it is obvious he's done it, he can just acquit himself and those who helped him. You might argue that this isn't very fair, but you would be well-advised to not do so in public, as it might get you beheaded for treason.

That's why separation of power was introduced.

  • The legislative branch doesn't decide how their laws are executed by the executive branch and applied by the judicial system, so they have to abide by their own laws. Further, they have to make sure their laws are clear and unambiguous to avoid them from being misinterpreted by the other branches. And what laws they can or can not make is usually also restricted by laws (a constitution), which is interpreted by the judicial branch. So they can not just make a law that people who criticize the legislative must be beheaded when the judicial branch points out that they can't because of something about freedom of speech in the constitution.
  • The executive branch can't decide what laws to enforce, so its power to take arbitrary actions is limited. They can't just kill anyone who criticizes the executive branch without a law which says they can.
  • The judicial branch doesn't take responsibility for the content of laws. They enforce them to the letter. That makes sure everyone is treated equally in a court of law. They can not sentence everyone to death who criticizes the judicial branch when the executive doesn't bring them the people who do (deciding who to prosecute is a duty of the executive branch).

This separation of powers ensures that rule of law prevails:

  • Laws are clear and unambiguous
  • No government official can take an action without a law which gives them the authority to do so
  • Laws get interpreted to the letter and not to the whim of who executes them
  • Everyone is treated equally by the judicial system

With a separation solely by topic, this effect would not occur. But by the way: In practice all three branches do have separations by topic. Executives have different ministries, Judiciaries have different courts for different laws and even parliaments usually have multiple committees which draft laws about certain topics (although the final decision is usually done by the whole parliament).

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    The question seems less about the why powers are separated, and more towards the reasoning for how they are separated. Nov 18, 2016 at 18:30
  • @DrunkCynic I don't think so. But I still added a paragraph about that.
    – Philipp
    Nov 18, 2016 at 18:42
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    @Philipp - sorry, I also parsed the question the way Cynic did. It acknowledges the division but asks "why this exact way?"
    – user4012
    Nov 18, 2016 at 21:51

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