John B points out (off-blog) a post on The New Republic that with its blend of political and technical metaphors sounds more like a post from early 21st century South Sea Republic: Wiki-constitutionalism.

It describes the tremendous affection South American nations have for rewriting their constitution from scratch, at a rate of once every ten years or so.

Though it’s a catchy name, Wiki-constitutionalism isn’t a great analogy. The defining aspect of C2 or wikipedia was always progressive collaborative refinement of its documents. A rewrite from scratch is more akin to what Jefferson advocated, in Cam’s words:

Jefferson believed constitution’s should be sunsetted every 25 years, so each succeeding generation can rewrite government to be a reflection of themselves. I agree. The reason republicanism has such traction is that our constitution is a 16thC document with an elected upper house thrown in. Many of the errors, skewings and inefficiencies in our system can be traced to their constitutional origins.

To continue the analogy, and reuse one that came up on SSR more than once, it is like throwing out a creaking legacy system written in VB by a million monkeys, and having a new crack team come in and rewrite it in Python (or the tech du jour).

The example of South America is, however, not reassuring. Going back to TNR:

Latin American leaders have discovered that, by packaging ever-longer lists of promises and rights alongside greater executive functions, they can make a new constitution appealing enough to the masses that they will vote for it in a referendum. The result is constitutions that are not only the shortest-lived, but also among the longest in the world. Bolivia’s and Ecuador’s recently approved constitutions have 411 and 444 articles, respectively, and read like laundry lists of guaranteed rights, such as access to mail and telephones; guarantees for culture, identity, and dignity; and shorter work-weeks. By contrast, the U.S. Constitution, the longest-serving in the world, has only seven articles and 27 amendments.

Making most of these efforts, to complete the last lap around this allegorical track, about as successful as your typical Big Redesign In The Sky.

3 thoughts on “WP:Vote

  1. I feel like there is a self-reinforcing dynamic in Latin American constitution writing between the frequency of changes and the level of factional populism in politics.

    Since a constitution is the legal equivalent of The Word of God, then the opportunity to (re)write one in the era of lobbyist-infused populist politics amounts to an invitation to shoe-horn in any old guff to ensure the support of rowdy mob XYZ. But the fact of one change makes the next more palatable, and a special-interest-packed constitution is sure to fall out of favour with the rise of the next new political alliance.

    I suspect that there is an inverse relationship between the expected duration of the document and the size/complexity of the thing. Of course, the US constitution was subject to its fair share of horse trading, but it is the guaranteed longevity of the document that focuses a drafter’s mind on the essence of what his or her country stands for.

  2. Some American commentators do certainly talk as if the US constitution was lowered on a string from the heavens :)

    I think you’re probably right about the size of the constitution being inversely related to the frequency of the changes, and for the reason you mention. It certainly holds for the short lived dictionary that was the Thai constitution in the 90’s. I guess the only way to fix it would be a Great Repeal Bill to excise guff from an otherwise fairly palatable document. This was proposed as part of the ToryLib crypto-manifesto in the UK, though I don’t think we’ve seen what’s in the actual bill yet.

  3. Pingback: Alexander Hamilton likes this « Conflated Automatons

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