Radical, Liberal and Conservative Constitutions

by Elias Blum

My copy of Roberto Gargarella’s ‘The Legal Foundations of Inequality: Constitutionalism in the Americas, 1776-1860’ has just arrived. I’ve read this book before, but only a borrowed copy. It’s easily the best study of the early development of constitutionalism in Latin America published in English (with the possible exception of Gargarella’s own subsequent work) and I wanted my own copy for reference.

Aside from its historical interest, the analytical value of the book lies in the unusual typology of constitutions it puts forward. Usually, constitutions are classified by their institutional forms: whether they are rigid or flexible, whether they have one or more legislative chambers, whether they are presidential, parliamentary or hybrid, and whether they are majoritarian, consociational or mixed – that sort of thing. But Gargarella classifies constitutions instead by their ideological intent, as ‘conservative’, ‘liberal’ or ‘radical’.

I’ve found this to be a very useful way of thinking about constitutions as more than legal-institutional documents; they are that, but they are also much more than that – they are also social and ideological documents. They speak not only of institutions and structures, but also of vision, purpose and identity – the ethos of the constitution. Two constitutions may have quite similar institutions, but a very different ethos.