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Visiting professor lectures on ‘time inconsistency of long constitutions’

| Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Hesburgh Center for International Studies hosted a lecture by the University of Michigan’s Anatol Rapoport Professor of Political Science George Tsebelis on Tuesday. The lecture combined Tsebelis’s lifelong interest in institutions and his background in mathematical modeling and comparative politics to examine what Tsebelis said were the most important institution of all — constitutions — and to advocate for ones that are shorter and less mutable.

When Tsebelis began, he said his talk would focus on democratic constitutions, investigating the effects of different constitutional structures and whether data supported a wider rule on the effects of constitution type.

Tsebelis said while the purpose of constitutions are similar the world over, there is tremendous variety in length, scope and especially rigidity, as some 35 countries have constitutional articles they cannot amend. Even the nature of the U.S. Constitution was contested, he said.

“[James] Madison wanted to be serious and have a Constitution that stays there … Jefferson wanted a constitution that would be for 19 years” he said.

Tsebelis said the U.S. Constitution is short, particularly compared to those written post-1945, which is unsurprising given the fact that older constitutions tend to cover fewer topics.

Every constitution has three sorts of provisions, Tsebelis said: the innocuous, such as the national anthem or flag, the social, which covers the right to work and education, and the enforceable, which includes rights and the nature of the courts.

“Enforceable [provisions], these are the only ones we are going to modify,” Tsbelis said.

Tsebelis presented graphs that demonstrated the relationship between constitutional length in democracies and Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) members and rates of change to their constitutions. The shorter and more rigid the constitution is, the less it will change over time, he said.

“The longer the constitution the more time inconsistent it is,” Tsebelis said.

Time inconsistency refers to positions that differ between current and future choices, often forgoing future welfare for present ease. The 1977 Nobel Prize in Economics was awarded to Finn Kydland and Edward Prescott for demonstrating time inconsistency is bad for economic policy, Tsebelis said, and time inconsistency is also negative for constitutions. Governments head off economic time inconsistency by authorizing a central bank separate from the central government, and short, circumscribed constitutions are political controls on time inconsistency, he said.

Another reason for a normative standard of constitutional structure is because there are negative societal outcomes associated with a lengthy and shifting constitution, according to Tsebelis.

“Long constitutions are associated with low GDP per capita … in all countries we see length of constitution connected with corruption,” he said.

Tsebelis said one explanation for the association between constitution length and corruption was as constitutions lengthen they become subject to interpretation, making them more susceptible to manipulation.

“Rules are better than discretion, and the constitution should be the rules … and it should not be changing unless there’s serious reason,” he said.

Tsebelis said putting government policy into a constitution does nothing for the policies while weakening the constitution and thus the state. As an example, Tsebelis said recent efforts in his native Greece to revise the constitution in order to change the electoral process were misguided.

“There is no ideal electoral system, every political science freshman knows this. … You shouldn’t have policy in the constitution to begin with,” he said.

Tsebelis concluded his lecture by reiterating the need for concise and clear constitutions.

“Constitutions are becoming products of discretion and not the rules. … I believe we intended the opposite” he said.

“Before we put things in the constitution … we should be thinking is this a rule for the ages.”

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About Devon Chenelle

Devon Chenelle is a senior, formerly of Keough Hall. Returning to campus after seven months abroad, Devon is a history major with minors in Italian and Philosophy. He can be reached at dchenell@nd.edu - On résiste à l'invasion des armées; on ne résiste pas à l'invasion des idées.

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