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Published March 1992 | public
Journal Article

Constitutional stability


Political scientists in the pluralist tradition disagree sharply with public and social choice theorists about the importance of institutions and with William Riker in particular, who argues inLiberalism against Populism that the liberal institutions of indirect democracy ought to be preferred to those of populism. This essay reconsiders this dispute in light of two ideas unavailable to Riker at the time. The first, offered by Russell Hardin, is that if we conceptualize constitutions as coordinating devices rather than as social contracts, then we can develop a more satisfying view of the way in which constitutions become self-enforcing. The second idea derives from the various applications of concepts such as the uncovered set. Briefly, although institutions such as the direct election of president are subject to the usual instabilities that concern social choice theorists, those instabilities do not imply that "anything can happen" —instead, final outcomes will be constrained, where the severity of those constraints depends on institutional details. We maintain that these ideas strengthen Riker's argument about the importance of such constitutional devices as the separation of powers, bicameralism, the executive veto, and scheduled elections, as well as the view that federalism is an important component of the institutions that stabilize the American political system. We conclude with the proposition that the American Civil War should not be regarded as a constitutional failure, but rather as a success.

Additional Information

© 1992 George Mason University. I have benefitted from the comments of a number of people on earlier drafts of this essay, especially William Riker, Emerson Niou, Kenneth Shepsle, Gordon Tullock, Thomas Schwartz, and Matthew Spitzer.

Additional details

August 20, 2023
October 17, 2023