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Nations and States

Constitutions and the Structure of Government

The Rise of the Nation-State

Systems of Government

Every country has a constitution of some sort that outlines the government’s structure. A constitution is simply the set of rules that govern how power is distributed and exercised. In other words, these rules structure the government of a state. Without such a set of rules, the state could not function and anarchy would reign. Although no constitution can cover every possible question or issue, all states need to spell out at least the fundamental matters of the distribution and use of power.

Written and Unwritten Constitutions

Some constitutions—such as that of the United States or the Basic Law of Germany—are codified into written documents. In other states, such as the United Kingdom, the constitution consists of many documents, laws, court rulings, and traditional practices that have never been compiled into a single document. But in every case, custom, history, and tradition play an important role.

Constitutional Design

Strong constitutions share three characteristics, or principles, of constitution design:

  1. Attentive to tradition: People prefer rules that resemble past rules. They are unlikely to follow a new set of rules if it differs widely from what they are used to doing. This principle holds particularly true for customs that have existed for a long time.
  2. Open to change: A constitution should be amendable. Although it should not be too easy to change, making a constitution too rigid may straitjacket future leaders, who may deal with dramatically different circumstances.

Example: The U.S. Constitution has been amended nearly thirty times, allowing Americans to adapt their structure of government to changing mores, beliefs, and practices. The Bill of Rights was the first set of amendments. Other amendments include the Thirteenth Amendment, which made slavery illegal in 1865, and the Nineteenth Amendment, which gave women the right to vote in 1920.

  1. 3. A harness to personal ambition: In a good government, the leaders have a strong incentive to prioritize the country over personal ambition. A good, strong constitution creates a situation in which the leaders’ ambition leads them to work for the public good, not for personal gain. Without such incentives, rulers, elected or otherwise, may very well ignore the public good.

Although these three principles of constitutional design help ensure solid governmental structures, ultimately they are merely guidelines. Some successful constitutions do not include them, and a number of states have succeeded in imposing governments that differ greatly from tradition. Unfortunately, any radical departures from tradition or history usually require violence.

Example: After a fourteen-year war to gain independence from Portugal, Angola entered into a decades-long civil war to determine which ethnic political party would head the country. Intervention from other nation-states, which favored one party over another and wanted to see their favorite gain dominance, exacerbated the violence.

Length of Constitutions

Some constitutions are short documents. The U.S. Consti-tution, for example, covers only a few pages. Others are lengthy. The Basic Law of Germany, for example, is roughly five times as long as the U.S. Constitution. As a general rule, older constitutions are shorter than newer constitutions.

Example: In the United States, state constitutions are frequently far longer than the federal one, which was ratified in 1789. In part, this is because most state con-stitutions were written after the federal one. Even states that predate the federal Constitution have rewritten their constitutions, sometimes more than once.

The Advantages of Vagueness

Constitutions, particularly short ones, tend to be vague in their contents. Vague constitutions have two advantages:

  1. They easily adapt to changing circumstances. Social and political circumstances sometimes change very rapidly, and an excessively specific constitution can create problems if a new political era dawns.
  2. They foster cooperation. Vague constitutions encourage political leaders to work together to determine the specific policies through negotiation.

Example: The vague U.S. Constitution has encouraged political leaders to work together through congressional committees. These committees have become a hallmark of the American democratic process.

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