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

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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).

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