Constitution making in action: The case of Iceland..

Such articles are so interesting.  Prof. Thorvaldur Gylfason of Univ of Iceland has been writing in voxeu on changes in Iceland’s constitution post crisis.

In his new piece he points how people in Iceland are participating in design of the constitution. He begins with an exciting thought:

Strangely, democratic states often allow tiny minorities to get away with murder by exploiting the masses, big time. In Europe and the US, there is presently a fairly widespread feeling that this is what many bankers have done (Johnson and Kwak 2010). So let’s begin with a counterfactual thought experiment. What if the Roosevelt administration and Congress had introduced the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 as a constitutional amendment rather than as an ordinary piece of legislation? Clearly, it would then have become that much harder to reverse Glass-Steagall half a century later. Lehman Brothers might still be standing. Perhaps the financial upheavals of recent years could have been averted altogether. But, then, perhaps not, for Europe never found it necessary to separate commercial banking from investment banking by law, nor did Canada.

 Was pretty excited to know that Ecuador has some stiff regulation ideas in its constitution itself:

FDR had an excuse. Banks and financial institutions are rarely covered by constitutions. The sole substantial exception to this rule is the detailed 2008 constitution of Ecuador which includes some pretty tough provisions (see Appendix). In essence, Art. 308 stipulates that bank managers who run their banks into the ground do so at their own peril. By Art. 309, negligent bank supervisors must be taken to court. By Art. 312, bankers are not allowed to own media or other nonbank businesses. Clearly, besides Glass-Steagall, the US could have benefited from constitutional amendments in this vein, and so could Iceland, because all three provisions would have kicked in immediately after the financial crash of 2008. 

He then moves onto Iceland and discusses citizens participation in framing the new constituion. Very exciting stuff..

He ends the piece by quoting Jefferson:

“Without a reform of the Constitution, there is no future possible,” said the president of the Spanish Constitutional Court in 2009. Constitutions do wear out if they fail to anticipate social, economic, and political change. Around the world, nations routinely change their constitutions, every 19 years on average (Elkins, Ginsburg, and Melton 2009). Thomas Jefferson would not have been surprised. In a remarkably prescient 1789 letter to James Madison, Jefferson wrote that “Every constitution … naturally expires at the end of 19 years” because “the earth belongs always to the living generation.” On the basis of its textual elements, taking into account its various provisions, Elkins, Ginsburg, and Melton (2012) predict that the new Icelandic constitution, if ratified, will last 60 years, adding that “drafting the right text has been found to be surprisingly important for constitutional mortality”. They conclude by declaring the bill to “be at the cutting edge of ensuring public participation in ongoing governance, a feature that we argue has contributed to constitutional endurance in other countries.”

Superb stuff..


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