Ginsburg and Scalia on Foreign Constitutions

Conservative columnist Jeff Jacoby has a good article today on the somewhat overwrought criticism of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg for saying, in Cairo, that the US Constitution is not a good model for other countries in 2012. As Jacoby points out, conservative Justice Antonin Scalia recently actually said that “[t]he bill of rights of the former ‘evil empire,’ the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, was much better than ours,” without raising any such hackles. Scalia avoided criticism in large part because he quickly added that a good constitutional text has little value if isn’t enforced. But, as Jacoby notes, Ginsburg added much the same qualification in Cairo.

Generally speaking, Ginsburg is absolutely right to suggest that the US Constitution is not an ideal model for every foreign nation. There are lots of ways in which our institutions might be inappropriate for other nations in different circumstances. For example, the US presidency concentrates enormous power in the hands of one person. That might be very dangerous in a society that has only recently emerged from dictatorship. Countries such as Switzerland have done fairly well with a plural executive. A small country that wages few wars has less need of a powerful, unitary executive than a global superpower. Similarly, the US system of federalism might not be the best model for the many societies where the main purpose of federalism is to mitigate ethnic conflict by giving minority groups subnational governments that they control. And a few provisions of the US Constitution are simply outright mistakes by the Founding Fathers that no one would want to imitate.

That said, I am much less sympathetic to Ginsburg’s specific reasons for preferring other models over the US Constitution. She would “look at the constitution of South Africa,” because it “was a deliberate attempt to have a fundamental instrument of government that embraced basic human rights.” Obviously the US Constitution embraces many “basic human rights” as well. The rights present in the South African Constitution that are absent from ours are mostly “positive” rights to welfare state services, such as government guarantees of housing and employment. In many countries that have constitutions with such positive rights, the rights in question are not legally enforceable, so they have little actual impact. Where they do have an effect, the result is usually to increase government control over the economy and society, an outcome that I deplore for reasons I summarized here. In theory, of course, these positive rights provisions could be used to strike down harmful government actions, such as restrictive zoning laws that price the poor out of urban housing markets, and labor regulations that increase unemployment among unskilled workers. In practice, however, positive rights guarantees are rarely applied in ways that constrain government power rather than expand it.

As for Scalia’s statement, if he really believes that the Soviet Constitution’s individual rights provisions are “much better” than ours, he may not have read the former very carefully. Chapter 7 of the 1977 Soviet Constitution did indeed guarantee numerous individual rights. But many of them are socialist “positive rights” that I doubt Scalia would approve of. In addition, Article 52 gives, atheists, but not theists the right to engage in “propaganda” on behalf of their views on religion. Religious believers were (at least on paper) guaranteed freedom of worship, but, unlike atheists, could be banned from proselytizing. I doubt that Scalia would approve of this double standard.

More importantly, Article 59 emphasizes that “Citizens’ exercise of their rights and freedoms is inseparable from the performance of their duties and obligations,” and those duties include “comply[ing] with standards of socialist conduct” (Article 59) and “safeguard[ing] the interests of the Soviet state, and …. enhanc[ing] its power and prestige” (Article 62). Thus, the individual rights in the Soviet Constitution could be overriden in any cases where they conflict with “standards of socialist conduct” or somehow threaten the interests of the Soviet state or its “power and prestige.” All of this should also be read in light of Article 6, which guaranteed the Communist Party a monopoly of political power. That, presumably, is one of the “interests of the Soviet state” that can be used to limit individual rights. A careful reading of the Soviet Constitution – or even just the individual rights sections – leaves little doubt that it was written for a totalitarian communist state.

Obviously, Scalia was absolutely right to note that the Soviet government was perfectly capable of ignoring its own laws whenever it suited them to do so. At the same time, they did try to maintain a veneer of legality when possible and the Soviet Constitution was designed to help them do that. There is often a closer connection between the text of a constitution and the true nature of a nation’s political system than Scalia implies.