Countries with longer constitutions are poorer and more corrupt: evidence from the OECD

Image 327f8ffc

In a recent journal article George Tsebelis and Dominic J. Nardi, Jr. present statistical evidence that longer constitutions are associated with lower levels of GDP per capita. In this post they summarise their findings and speculate that this may be because detailed constitutions are more likely to prevent governments from adopting measures necessary to combat economic shocks.

When the Eurozone crisis struck in 2009, it soon became apparent that southern European countries would have to drastically restructure government spending and improve their competitiveness in order to reduce excessive levels of public debt. However, some states found themselves unable to do so, and not merely because of lack of political will. In some cases, detailed socioeconomic provisions in their constitutions limited their scope of action. For example, Greece’s 1975 Constitution prohibits the privatization of universities (art. 16(5)). In short, such constitutional provisions risk locking governments into policies that in other countries would not even be considered questions of constitutional law.

The debate over the ideal level of detail in a constitution has gone on since at least the US Constitutional Convention of 1787. Founding Father James Madison famously argued for a framework constitution that would simply delineate government authority. By contrast, Anti-Federalists feared that brevity might leave important rights unprotected, which prompted the subsequent enactment of a more detailed Bill of Rights. Thanks to the advent of statistical computing software and cross-national datasets, the comparative constitutions literature has begun to assess the impact of constitutional detail outside the U.S. In an article in the British Journal of Political Science, we seek to address one portion of this debate: does the length of a constitution have an effect on economic development?

Broadly speaking, we consider three types of constitutional provisions. First, a constitution can regulate technical matters, which might be critical to the operation of government but tend to be politically innocuous. For example, some constitutions describe the national flag, but the colours are seldom debated in political discourse. Second, constitutions can contain aspirational goals or ideological statements. Revolutionary regimes often issued new constitutions to announce major shifts in policy. Finally, constitutions contain restrictive or prescriptive statements that constrain government action. For example, the US President cannot circumvent the constitutional requirement that he seek the ‘advice and consent’ of the Senate for presidential appointments (as demonstrated in NLRB vs. Canning).

Continue reading

Projecting Nepal’s future constitutional stability


A new constitution was agreed in Nepal this September, but will the document bring concord to the often unsettled nation? Arguing that constitutional stability is critical for long-term development, Daniel Goldstein examines Nepal’s mechanisms for constitutional change and projects the nation’s constitutional stability over the next 20 years.   

Despite the end of a ten year civil war and total rejection of the monarchy in late 2006, Nepal has remained a politically turbulent country.  Although an interim constitution passed in 2007, the process of agreeing a finalised constitution was delayed by political bickering.  Shortly after conclusion of the civil war, the one-time military foes of the government, the Maoist, entered the legislature as a political party.  Gaining significant support, the Maoist clashed with the traditional political parties over the constitution.  Though there have been several amendments to the interim constitution, most progress toward a new document occurred in the months preceding the September 2015 enactment of the new constitution.  The suddenly expedited process has been partially attributed to national solidarity following the April 25 2015 earthquake, which killed over 8,500 people.

Divisions along ethnic, language, and caste lines pervade Nepal, factors that substantially influenced passage of the new constitution, which creates a federal system dividing the country into seven states.  The Maoist campaigned strongly for the federal constitution which aimed to provide rights to discriminated minorities. However, concerns that the new constitution does not go far enough to protect the rights of minorities, as well as objections to the drawing of state borders, have led to continued upheaval since the September enactment.  Protests have been especially prevalent in the region of Terai, bordering India, where residents feel that the new constitution will allow for continued discrimination against those of mixed Indian and Nepalese backgrounds and against women.  The constitution grants Nepalese citizenship to children of Nepalese men who marry immigrants, but this privilege is not extended to Nepalese women unless their immigrant husband first becomes a Nepalese citizen. There is additional worry that the constitution was hurriedly sanctioned by the predominant political parties, which are led primarily by males of high castes, and that the present dissatisfaction with the constitution could lead to a renewal of violence.

Continue reading

New Data Available from the Comparative Constitutions Project

Last week the Comparative Constitutions Project (CCP) released two new data sets. These new data are available for download here.

The first data set is an update to the CCP’s Chronology of Constitutional Events. In addition to making a number of minor changes to previously released chronology data, we added constitutional events that occurred from 2007 to 2013. According to our records, there have been 25 new constitutions and 4 interim constitutions written from 2007 through 2013 and 172 constitutional amendments.

The second data set is a major expansion of the CCP’s data on the Characteristics of National Constitutions. The original release of these data (version 1.0) included only the contents of each constitution in force in 2006. The expanded data (version 2.0) contains all of the “cleaned” data available from the project. This includes data from 524 constitutional systems and nearly 1,500 constitutional events, which equates to more than 8,000 country-years.

The figure below illustrates the relationship between the CCP’s characteristics data and its chronology. The dashed line indicates the number of independent states in each year from 1789 to 2013. The solid line indicates the number of constitutions in force in independent states in each of those years.  The shaded area represents the country-years for which the CCP has released data on the characteristics of national constitutions. Overall, the characteristics data are available for 52% of country-years for which there was a constitution in force. As illustrated in the figure, this percentage varies quite a bit over time, ranging from only having data available for about 40% of countries circa World War II to data available for about 85% of countries for much of the last decade.

Continue reading

Announcing the Launch of Constitute: The World’s Constitutions to Read, Search and Compare

23rd September 2013

I am pleased to announce the launch of Constitute, a website for reading, searching, and comparing the world’s constitutions.  Constitutions are critical to countries’ development.  Outcomes, like democracy, economic performance and human rights protection, are all associated with the contents of countries’ constitutions.  It is little wonder, then, that constitutions are often blamed for poor economic and political outcomes or that such outcomes commonly result in constitutional change.  Constitute aims to improve constitutional design and, in doing so, increase the likelihood that countries’ constitutions will facilitate development, rather than hinder it. Numerous countries change their constitution each year.  Already this year we have observed new constitutions in Fiji and Zimbabwe and constitutional amendments in Brazil, Colombia, the Czech Republic, Georgia, Hungary, Mexico, Switzerland and Tonga.  In addition, countries like Egypt, Myanmar, Tunisia and Yemen are all known to be in various stages of the constitutional revision process.  Some might be surprised to learn that so many countries have either recently revised or intend to revise their constitutions.  After all, constitutions are meant to be timeless documents that establish the foundations for politics and governance from one generation to the next.  This may be true in the United States or Western Europe, but most countries’ constitutions are fragile.  A typical constitution lasts only 19 years, which means that, on average, 5 constitutions are replaced and 30 are amended each year.

Despite the high level of constitutional change each year, there is no country that changes its constitution often enough for public officials to gain much experience as constitutional drafters.  Constitutional drafters are typically engaged in a task that they have never done before and will never do again.  They lack systematic information on the contents of other countries’ constitutions that could help them to decide what topics should be addressed in their constitution and how to address those topics.  Such information is hard to acquire.  There is no single location that constitutional drafters can use to access and compare constitutional documents and language – which is critical to drafters – because these documents are locked up in libraries or on the hard drives of constitutional experts.

Constitute addresses this problem by putting searchable copies of the world’s constitutions online.  However, Constitute is more than just a repository of constitutional texts.  The project draws on data collected by the Comparative Constitutions Project over the last 8 years to assign topic tags to provisions within constitutions.  This allows for powerful, topic-based searches of those texts.   There are more than 300 topics for users to choose from on the site, which range from the fairly general – e.g. the structure of the branches of government – to the very specific – e.g. voting rights for indigenous groups.  For those interested in regional or temporal trends in constitution-making, the search results can be filtered by country and year.

Our hope is that Constitute will improve constitution-making by allowing drafters to consider the full array of possible choices when determining the contents of their country’s constitution.  We also anticipate that the tool will empower domestic actors not directly involved in drafting the constitution but who are, nonetheless, integral to the success of that process.  Increasingly, constitution-making processes ask the public to participate, for example by submitting suggestions to the constitutional drafting committee or approving the completed draft in a public referendum.  Constitute will facilitate participation in these aspects of the constitution-making process by allowing groups in civil society, academia, and the general public to inform themselves about how other countries have tackled particular problems.

More generally, the constitutions available on Constitute will be of great interest to numerous domestic actors in countries all over the world.  Many constitutions are not available in digital form and tools to organize their provisions for a non-specialist are rare, even though there is substantial demand for such tools from public officials, lawyers, non-governmental organizations, students, etc.  Constitute can be used by such individuals to learn about their constitutions.  Want to know if your constitution protects freedom of religion or the right to health care or even the rights of breast-feeding mothers?  Just search for the term you are interested in, using either a topic or free text search, and filter the results to display only the country where you reside.   (For the curious reader, note that only Ecuador’s constitution mentions the rights of breast-feeding mothers.)

Constitute will increase transparency in countries throughout the world by ensuring universal access to the world’s constitutions.  We expect that access to these important documents will improve constitution-making as well as empower the general public to play a more active role in their country’s governance.

Constitute was made possible by the support from Google Ideas and the Indigo Trust.