What Is Carte Blanche?

"Carte blanche" is a French term that means "blank document." Carte blanche is commonly used in English to refer to a check that has been signed but does not have a dollar amount written in. The recipient of such a check then writes in whatever dollar amount he wants or needs.

Key Takeaways

  • Carte blanche is a figurative term to describe having free reign or flexibility with budget or spending decisions for a project or investment.
  • In politics, it can mean free reign over policy or strategy, often leading to poor outcomes due to abuse of power or overstepping bounds.
  • The term comes from French, where it translates as "blank document" or "blank checque."

Understanding Carte Blanche

The term "carte blanche" is more commonly used figuratively than literally. It usually means someone in power has given someone else the unconditional authority to spend money in a given situation or make decisions about that situation. This term is commonly used in politics and business. Carte blanche arrangements are often a bad idea because of their high potential for abuse.

Sometimes a person provides a blank check to a trusted agent, such as when making payment on a debt for which she does not know the amount. In the United States, the legal term for a blank check is "incomplete instrument." Blank checks are dealt with in the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC). The UCC does not make the issuance or acceptance of a blank check illegal. However, if a person accepting such an instrument enters an amount on the check that is unauthorized by the issuer, the UCC considers it an illegal alteration.

A counter check is sometimes referred to as a blank check. A counter check is a check that banks sometimes provide to customers who are making withdrawals or who have just opened an account and haven't had time to order pre-printed checks. Typically, these checks lack some of the information commonly printed on checks, and many businesses refuse to accept them due to their high incidence of abuse.

Carte Blanche in Politics and Economics

Sometimes "carte blanche" is used in politics, economics, or law to refer to full powers, a term in international law referring to the granting of authority to a designated person or entity to take the actions or spend the money necessary to achieve a result.

For example, the U.S. Gulf of Tonkin Resolution gave President Lyndon B. Johnson full powers to "take all necessary measures" to prevent aggression by Vietnam against the United States and its allies. This resolution has been called a blank check and a carte blanche. These terms have also been widely used to describe the powers granted to U.S. President George W. Bush to "to use all necessary and appropriate force" to hunt down the people responsible for the 9/11 attacks in New York City, Washington D.C., and Shanksville, Pa.