What, Exactly, Constitutes a Constitution?
September 24, 2013 6:37 AM   Subscribe

Constitute offers the constitutions of the world's nations for comparison. Search for constitutions by country or by topic, then pin or download results using a clean, easy-to-use interface. Brought to you by The Comparative Constitutions Project.
posted by Rykey (16 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
 
This is incredibly cool. I wish I had had it a few years ago, in law school.
posted by Lemurrhea at 6:59 AM on September 24, 2013


What constitutes a constitution is a very good question. I would state that it must define an equal and free citizen, including rights and obligations, and not leave it as an afterthought or open question to struggle over. The second most important point is to define the state, and its rights and obligations, not only to citizens but to all human beings generally. In the American context, consistent definitions of both would have avoided slavery, civil war and many foreign interventions; included women as voters from the beginning, and legitimized the common practice of abortion, etc.
posted by Brian B. at 7:34 AM on September 24, 2013


What constitutes a constitution is a very good question. I would state that it must define an equal and free citizen, including rights and obligations, and not leave it as an afterthought or open question to struggle over.

But that's a definition of what's a good constitution, in the moral/ethical sense of "good." There's no reason you can't have a straightforward, well-constructed constitution that makes it very clear that everybody not named Andrew or Thomas is a second-class citizen and people with black hair, of any name, are legally identical to lobsters.
posted by Tomorrowful at 7:37 AM on September 24, 2013 [4 favorites]


Awesome- just sent this to my coworkers.

There's an interesting thing I've noticed, working for a nonprofit that aims to protect the constitutional rights of people in developing countries- which is the fact that, just because somebody decided to write up a constitution and put a bunch of rights in it, that doesn't mean everything in that country will suddenly start to respect and honor those rights. In fact, if there was never a strong tradition of defending those particular rights in that country, people are likely to respond to "but that's unconstitutional!" with a big fat "...so?" I mean, check out Afghanistan's constitution sometime- it's more inclusive than ours in many ways, but that doesn't mean it's automatically awesome to live there. I think Americans are really unusual in their reverence for the constitution.
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:39 AM on September 24, 2013 [3 favorites]


My current fascination: Browsing by topic, and specifically, what's excluded from the amendment process. Many have a straightforward "no fucking with the basic democratic nature of things or limiting voting rights," but some get more specific or weirder. Brazil, for example, prohibits any amendment that changes the federal nature of the state; East Timor prohibits changing the flag.
posted by Tomorrowful at 7:43 AM on September 24, 2013


This is a great link, and I'm going to spend a lot of time with it, but it was obvious that it was an American site long before I checked. Heck, even by the description one can tell it's an American project.

showbiz_liz: “I think Americans are really unusual in their reverence for the constitution.”

I would restate this differently. Americans are unusual in their obsession with a written constitution. And I say this as a student of political science and someone who's very interested in our written constitution – it's odd how we identify "constitution" with a piece of paper. Note, for example, that the UK isn't on the list. Why? Because the UK does not have a written constitution. Does this mean that the UK does not have a constitution? No, of course not. It's just not a document, or even a collection of documents.

In fact, the assumption that the constitution can even be written down is an interesting one. It's clear, I think, that America has plenty of aspects to its constitution which are not written anywhere in the document which bears that name. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt ran for a third term in office, people said he was violating the Constitution – and they didn't mean the written document; they were right, in that the limitation of Presidents to two terms was a constitutional custom established long ago by George Washington and revered and held until FDR decided to break it.

But of course, if we read the word "constitution" in that most natural way – as referring to the set of principles at the basis of a regime – then this web site would have to be much larger and more complicated.
posted by koeselitz at 7:50 AM on September 24, 2013 [8 favorites]


No Cape Verdian citizen may be extradited or expelled from the country

No foreigner may be extradited for political or religious reasons or for opinions.

Foreigners who endanger Switzerland’s security may be removed from Switzerland by force.
posted by three blind mice at 7:51 AM on September 24, 2013


Cambodia: The provision as stated in the first clause of Article 7, "the King of Cambodia shall reign but shall not govern" absolutely shall not be amended.
posted by Tomorrowful at 7:54 AM on September 24, 2013


And also: Revision or amendment affecting the system of liberal and pluralistic democracy and the regime of Constitutional Monarchy shall be prohibited.

So, basically, the Cambodian constitution insists that there will always be a King, but also that he will never ever have real power.
posted by Tomorrowful at 7:55 AM on September 24, 2013


Old establishments are tried by their effects. If the people are happy, united, wealthy, and powerful, we presume the rest. We conclude that to be good from whence good is derived. In old establishments various correctives have been found for their aberrations from theory. Indeed, they are the results of various necessities and expediences. They are not often constructed after any theory: theories are rather drawn from them. In them we often see the end best obtained, where the means seem not perfectly reconcilable to what we may fancy was the original scheme. The means taught by experience may be better suited to political ends than those contrived in the original project. They again react upon the primitive constitution, and sometimes improve the design itself, from which they seem to have departed. I think all this might be curiously exemplified in the British Constitution. At worst, the errors and deviations of every kind in reckoning are found and computed, and the ship proceeds in her course.
Edmund Burke: "Reflections on the Revolution in France"
posted by TheophileEscargot at 8:12 AM on September 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


Also, I should say that Carl Schmitt would have a lot of unkind things to say about these "constitutions" which deign to elevate the most mundane of civil rules to the level of constitutional statutes. As he put it in Constitutional Theory – "The constitution in the positive sense entails only the conscious determination of the particular complete form, for which the political unity decides." Is the color and shape of the flag of East Timor really and truly an essential constitutional issue, decided by the people as one, which concerns the very foundations of the "complete form" of the state? I'm guessing not.
posted by koeselitz at 8:33 AM on September 24, 2013


Yes, there's a lot to be said for keeping constitutions short and leaving a lot implicit. It helps make people argue about what's right, instead of what's merely constitutional, and it minimises the transfer of power from democracy to lawyers. Although I'm not sure the British example, if it is one, provides much evidential support for that.

I suspect a lot of these constitution writers have copied each other. Maybe the UN could run up a 'best practice' constitution with a few options, and 90% of the work of drafting a new one would be done. Ruritania has the standard constitution plus a tricameral elected assembly and entrenched shooting rights for Archbishops, that kind of thing.
posted by Segundus at 8:55 AM on September 24, 2013


I suspect a lot of these constitution writers have copied each other. Maybe the UN could run up a 'best practice' constitution with a few options, and 90% of the work of drafting a new one would be done.

I rather suspect that this is basically how it happens anyway.
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:05 AM on September 24, 2013


Uncodified or "unwritten" Constitutions are distinguished by not having a single supreme/sacred/founding document that is held above all else. Instead they draw upon various written documents as well as unwritten custom and convention. The UK is the chief but not the only example (NZ and Israel being others - the case of Israel is unintentional but suggests that it is a viable option for newly founded nations).
It's disappointing that the Constitute project just leaves out countries with uncodified constitutions completely. There are benefits (and disavantages) - Britain's system of governance has changed much faster and radically than the US , for instance.
posted by Bwithh at 9:14 AM on September 24, 2013


Odd, in the statistics they treat the UK as having a constitution enacted in 1971, I don't follow their rationale.

Incidentally, I was recently listening to this lecture which elaborates upon the changes in the British constitution since 1997; but to me the most interesting part was when he states that if the British constitution were to be written, all it would state is "What the Queen in Parliament enacts is law."
posted by banal evil at 10:13 AM on September 24, 2013


But that's a definition of what's a good constitution, in the moral/ethical sense of "good." There's no reason you can't have a straightforward, well-constructed constitution that makes it very clear that everybody not named Andrew or Thomas is a second-class citizen and people with black hair, of any name, are legally identical to lobsters.

I tried to leave morals and ethics out of it, which veers away from a systems approach and invites people to oppose it or burden it with their own cultural values. But, to imagine the problem you set forth, a necessary constitution can be rightly assumed to be democratic majority rule, which is the only system that absolutely needs one to claim and distribute the powers, and that contains yet another assumption where laws must apply to all, never selectively. As an extension of this non-privileged status, no law can justly target a citizen minority by the same logic. This is all incumbent on the framers, obviously, but these conditions are not arbitrary, though all other examples of constitutions might be, as you noted. Ref.
posted by Brian B. at 3:48 PM on September 24, 2013


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