Iceland is a tiny country that had a huge financial crisis. The country’s financial condition plummeted after it’s three largest commercial banks collapsed. In the wake of its three largest banks’ collapse, the country is drawing up a new constitution.
What caught my attention was that, so far, this constitution might represent the most democratic of constitutions in world history.
“The country’s 25-member constitutional council is posting draft clauses on its website and inviting the public to comment on them there or on its Facebook page. And their comments are actually being incorporated into the document. The council also has Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr accounts and is streaming all of its meetings live. It’s perhaps the most open and participatory constitutional process in modern history (the Greeks were pretty good at democracy in their time).
The draft Human Rights section currently contains an expansive clause barring descrimination for just about any reason (including “genotype” and “social origin”) but also guarantees universal mental and physical healthcare, academic freedom, and the protection of natural resources.”
Constitution-making has perhaps the least democratic record in history. This Constitution by wiki is a legal experiment with which this world has never dared. The effort in Iceland caught my attention because it is, for better or worse, an unadulterated manifestation of the most relentless global forces, namely the democratization attributable to the internet; more people have a voice but fewer have control. It also presents a case in which to examine the limits of democracy.
I’m not sure that our history with regard to constitutions is a bad thing. I’m a skeptical that the Icelandic experiment will work. For a sound constitution to be produced, an incredible amount of restraint will be required by the 25-person council.
While I certainly believe democracy is a good thing, it does not follow that more democracy is always better. In that vein, I’m less comfortable with the phrase “rule by the masses” than I am “restraint by the masses.” The mess created by the proposition system in California is a great example of the former; the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) and, as I posted recently, the Base Relocation and Closures Act (BRAC) are examples of the latter. The masses by no means were the originators of the UCC. However, they were always there to “throw the bums out” if the commercial scheme enacted by the legislature ever became “too bad.” Not even Congress was the originator of decisions made by the BRAC committee. However, they were there to vote no to the decisions in their entirety should they need to. And these were some of the most successful legislative enactments in our history.
Legal documents such as constitutions, which undergird every public decision thereafter and which function as system, require abnormal amounts of comprehensive planning. Shotgun constitutions have a long history of short lives. And yet, parochial, near-sighted thinking is far more typical of hyper-democracy systems such as California—the anathema of enduring constitutions. I must qualify all of this by saying that I have a Hamiltonian/Madisonian bias for enduring constitutions. Thomas Jefferson and the French seem to have preferred otherwise.