Harvard Law School
December 18, 2013
Harvard Public Law Working Paper No. 13-47
Legal scholars and political theorists interested in constitutionalism as a normative concept tend to dichotomize the subject. There is liberal constitutionalism of the sort familiar in the modern West, with core commitments to human rights and self-governance implemented by means of varying institutional devices, and there is authoritarianism, rejecting human rights entirely and governed by unconstrained power-holders. This Article explores the possibility of forms of constitutionalism other than liberal constitutionalism. The Article focuses on what I call authoritarian constitutionalism. That discussion is connected to recent literature in political science on hybrid regimes. Drawing on these literatures, this Article outlines some characteristics of authoritarian constitutionalism understood normatively.
The reason for such an exploration parallels that for the analysis of hybrid regimes. For a period those regimes were described as transitional, on the assumption that they were an intermediate point on a trajectory from authoritarianism to liberal democracy. Scholars have come to understand that we are better off seeing these regimes as a distinct type (or as several distinct types), as stable as many democracies. In short, they have pluralized the category of regime types. Similarly, I suggest, pluralizing the category of constitutionalism will enhance understanding by allowing us to draw distinctions between regimes that should be normatively distinguished.
I begin with a brief description of three forms of constitutionalism other than liberal constitutionalism. In absolutist constitutionalism, a single decision-maker motivated by an interest in the nation’s well-being consults widely and protects civil liberties generally, but in the end decides on a course of action in the decision-maker’s sole discretion, unchecked by any other institutions. In mere rule-of-law constitutionalism, the decision-maker conforms with some general procedural requirements and implements decisions through, among other things, independent courts, but is not constrained by any substantive rules regarding, for example, civil liberties. Finally, in authoritarian constitutionalism liberal freedoms are protected at an intermediate level and elections are reasonably free and fair.
The Article proceeds by describing in Part II Singapore’s constitutionalism, to motivate the later consideration of a more generalized account of authoritarian constitutionalism. Beginning the effort to pluralize the idea of constitutionalism, Part III examines the role of constitutions and courts in absolutist nations and in nations with mere rule-of-law constitutionalism. Part IV is deflationary, arguing against some political scientists’ instrumental or strategic accounts of constitutions, courts, and elections in nations with fully authoritarian systems, where liberal freedoms are not generally respected. The Part implicitly suggests that whatever semblance of true constitutionalism there is in such nations results from normative commitments by authoritarian rulers. Part V lays out some general characteristics of authoritarian constitutionalism, again with the goal of suggesting that authoritarian constitutionalism may best be defined by attributing moderately strong normative commitments to constitutionalism – not strategic calculations – to those controlling these nations. The upshot of Parts III through V is that either (a) the commitment to constitutionalism in all authoritarian regimes is a sham, or (b) at least some of them – the ones I label “authoritarian constitutionalist” – might have a normative commitment to constitutionalism. Part VI concludes with the suggestion that authoritarian constitutionalism has some normative attractions, at least in nations where the alternative of authoritarianism is more likely than that of liberal democracy.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 110
Keywords: authoritarianism, constitutionalism, Singapore
Date posted: December 18, 2013 ; Last revised: December 19, 2013