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The Endurance of National Constitutions

New book explains why some constitutions live and others die

Posted: October 30, 2009

Zachary Elkins’ book (with Tom Ginsburg and James Melton), The Endurance of National Constitutions, has been released by Cambridge University Press. Asking why some constitutions live and others die, Elkins and his coauthors exploit a dataset of 935 different constitutional systems for more than 200 different nation states spanning the period 1789-2005. The U.S. Constitution, having endured for 220 years and counting, is an outlier on two counts – the average life expectancy in the dataset is 19 years, and the constitutions that endure are easily amendable and specific in their language, and were inclusive at their founding.

The Endurance of National Constitutions investigates the durability of constitutional design: Can constitutions be designed to endure, or are they at the mercy of transformative events such as war and economic crisis? The book builds from three basic presumptions: constitutions are bargains among elites that are meant to endure; constitutions have no external guarantor to enforce the bargain; endurance requires a self-enforcing design. The bargain is self-enforcing to the extent everyone has a stake in the constitution enduring. However, various shocks will disrupt actors’ calculus of whether they are winning or losing under the bargain.

The authors identify three features critical for designing a constitution most likely to survive any given set of disruptions: flexibility – how easy it is to amend the constitution; inclusion – the degree to which relevant social and political actors are included; and specificity – the level of detail. Increasing flexibility, inclusion, and specificity facilitates enforcement and, therefore, durability.

Zachary Elkins is assistant professor of government.

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