Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Maxwell A. Cameron's "Strong Constitutions"

Maxwell A. Cameron is Director of the Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions and Professor of Political Science at the University of British Columbia.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Strong Constitutions: Social-Cognitive Origins of the Separation of Powers, and reported the following:
On page 99 [inset below left; click to enlarge] the reader meets the distinguished Harvard constitutionalist Carl J. Friedrich as he reads Aristotle through the eyes of Immanuel Kant. Kant observed the resemblance between the structure of logical syllogisms and the separation of powers. Friedrich, with his rapier-sharp wit, cuts through the complexity of the problem by using a homely but memorable analogy.

Suppose I see a hat lying around, Friedrich says. (Yes, he was writing in the 1950s when men wore hats!) I can say “I will pick up that hat” or “I shall never allow hats to lie about”. One is a particular decision, the other a general rule. How is this connected to the separation of powers? Well, the legislature makes general rules—laws that take the form “one should not leave hats lying around.” The job of the executive is to actually pick up the hats—that is, to take the particular measures that follow from general rules. The judiciary stands between the two: it determines when a particular case falls within a general rule.

I love this example for two reasons. First, it shows the logic of the separation of powers. A logical syllogism implies a major premise (it is a general rule that “x means y”), a minor premise (this particular case falls within the class of events “x”), and a conclusion (it therefore follows that “y” is the case). The separation of powers follows this logic. The legislature provides the major premise, the judiciary determines how to interpret and apply general rules in particular cases, and the executive operates in the world of particular decisions.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, it shows how the structure of constitutional government is a reflection of the human mind. That is really the main argument of my book. As Friedrich puts it, the separation of powers “rests upon a broad logical and psychological foundation.” I take this argument even farther than Friedrich probably would have. In my view, the separation of powers is necessary for any political system that uses written texts, as well as unwritten conventions, to coordinate collective life. This is because texts always have to be interpreted. And the interpretation of texts demands movement between the general and the particular.

Strong Constitutions is all about how the separation of powers is not just a mechanism to limit government. It is about how we make meaning of the political world in ways that enable us to improve it.
Learn more about Strong Constitutions at the Oxford University Press website, and visit Max Cameron's blog.

--Marshal Zeringue