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Published August 30, 2017 | Submitted
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Constitutional Stability


Despite attempts to paper over the dispute, 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 in Liberalism against Populism that the liberal institutions of indirect democracy ought to be preferred to those of populist democracy. This essay reconsiders this dispute in light of two ideas unavailable to Riker at the time. The first, offered by Russell Hardin, is that constitutions can more usefully be conceptualized as coordinating devices as opposed to social contracts. The importance of this idea is that it allows for a more theoretically satisfying view of the way that constitutions become self-enforcing. The second idea, which derives from the various applications of concepts such as the uncoveted set, argues that although institutions such as the direct election of president are subject to the usual inabilities 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 depend 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

Published as Ordeshook, Peter C. "Constitutional stability." Constitutional political economy 3, no. 2 (1992): 137-175.

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August 20, 2023
October 17, 2023