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Constitutional Confidence

What "We the People" tells us about trust in our fellow Americans.

Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images
Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

The Indian Constitution– the longest social contract of any country in the world — clocks in at a hefty 78,255 words. It’s split into 22 parts and contains 395 articles, with 98 amendments tacked on for good measure.

Why so wordy? The constitution’s drafters might have said it’s because they sought to be thorough, borrowing concepts from France, Japan, and the Soviet Union. But the authors of a recent study, "Constitutional Verbosity and Social Trust," would counter that the Indian Constitution is so long because Indians simply don’t trust one another.

Economists Christian Bjornskov and Stefan Voigt examined the constitutions of 110 countries and found that the length of the document is inversely correlated to how much faith that nation’s people have in their fellow citizens, as measured by the World Values Survey. Countries with long constitutions and low trust levels include Kenya (74,789 words) and Brazil (42,472 words). Countries with short constitutions and high trust levels include Norway (7,404 words) and Denmark (6,208 words). The U.S. Constitution is pithy — just 4,542 words — and American trust levels are indeed above average. But the title for the world’s shortest constitution belongs to Iceland, which clocks in at a snappy 4,115 words.

A more detailed constitution can be a good thing. Explicit legal codes covering a variety of scenarios establish clear boundaries for lawmaking and governing. They constrain both contemporary actors as well as future politicians, who may not share the same ideas as a country’s founders. But the extra codification comes at a cost: Too many constraints can make governing cumbersome. Thus, when constitution drafters feel confident that their compatriots will act in good faith, they’ll tend to opt for brevity, Bjornskov and Voigt argue. It’s only when they’re skeptical that they’ll fill in the gaps with codes and caveats. It’s the difference between, say, a 130-page contract and a handshake.

All things being equal, this suggests that a shorter constitution indicates a healthier political situation. But Bjornskov and Voigt caution that their theory of constitution drafting assumes a certain degree of objectivity and foresight on the part of the drafters and, as they put it, that "no other overriding considerations are salient around constitutional birth." If the victors in a civil war draft a concise new constitution, for example, that does not necessarily indicate a high degree of national warmth and fuzziness.

So what does that say about Egypt’s new, just-below-average-length, 20,000-word constitution, which was written in the aftermath of a military coup, bans religious parties from the political process, and reinforces the army’s control? The result of a strong sense of trust? Perhaps. Or perhaps there were other salient overriding considerations.

Alicia P.Q. Wittmeyer is the Europe editor at Foreign Policy. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and Forbes, among other places. She holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and master’s degrees from Peking University and the London School of Economics. The P.Q. stands for Ping-Quon.

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