We all know about what individual governments do, but not so much about how they do it. All governments have to write, implement, and judge laws. But what are the laws that governments themselves have to follow? What are the policies and procedures that define how lawmakers get their jobs, what they have to do to pass new laws, and what limits (if any) they face?
Constitution: Which Laws Define How Laws Are Made?
The institutions that lay out how government is supposed to work, and how the lawmaking process is supposed to proceed, are usually defined in a country’s constitution. A constitution is a type of law that quite literally constitutes a government. It lays out the processes by which lawmakers are selected, the procedures they have to follow, and often the scope and limits on what a government can do.
Constitutions come in many shapes and sizes. When Americans think of a constitution, they often think about a dusty yellow document with flowery handwriting, and that’s because that’s what the US Constitution is. (It’s the world’s oldest constitution still in use today.)
But if, instead, we think of a constitution as the policies and procedures—and even the norms and customs—that describe how a government operates, then we realize that all governments have constitutions—even if they’re not necessarily called constitutions, and even if they’re unwritten.
Different Countries, Different Constitutions
Germany, for example, doesn’t have a formal constitution. But it does have a document called the Basic Law, which lays out how German government operates. Thus, political scientists would consider the Basic Law to be Germany’s constitution.
Even nondemocratic regimes, like North Korea and Iran, have constitutions. They have laws and norms that define how their governments operate. In these cases, though, the decision-making power of ordinary citizens is much more limited. Besides, there’s always a gap between what’s written in the constitution and the procedure that’s actually followed. Article 67 of North Korea’s constitution gives citizens freedom of speech, but I wouldn’t try it if I were you!
The United Kingdom is a particularly odd case because it doesn’t have a written constitution at all. Instead, true to Britain’s common law tradition, the workings of the House of Commons and its relationship to the House of Lords—all these things are governed by custom and established by precedent. Even the limitations on the monarchy are established by a set of unwritten traditions. The UK is a constitutional monarchy, which means that the monarch’s power is curtailed by a constitution, even if that constitution isn’t actually written down.
In short, constitutions are the highest laws in the land. They establish the policies and procedures from which all other laws flow.
This article comes directly from content in the video series Democracy and Its Alternatives. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Division of Responsibility
Before continuing, let’s understand how law is implemented. In most parliamentary regimes, the prime minister and the other cabinet ministers are themselves members of the parliament. In places like the United Kingdom and Canada, the prime minister even represents an individual district in the country, just like their fellow parliamentarians.
In such examples, the executive and legislative functions are essentially collapsed into one branch, with the prime minister and cabinet being part of the legislature.
Contrast this with how things are done in the United States and other presidential regimes, where there’s a clear separation between the executive and legislative branches.
Types of Regimes
Now, when political scientists talk about constitutions and governments, and especially when they compare them with one another, it’s helpful to organize them into types.
In political science, these broad types, or families, of government are called regimes. And, generally speaking, it’s the constitution that defines what kind of regime a country has. That’s why we discussed earlier about presidential regimes, and how they differ from parliamentary regimes. And we could make an even broader distinction between democratic regimes and authoritarian ones—or, as we did earlier, between constitutional and absolute monarchies.
Why a Constitution Is Essential
In a way, you can think of a country’s government at any given time as being like the programs on your computer. And if that’s the case, the regime is the operating system.
An operating system manages all the other software on your computer. You can’t load programs on your computer that aren’t compatible with its operating system. In much the same way, a country’s laws have to be consistent with its constitution—with its regime type.
Constitutions provide the essential operating instructions for how government is supposed to work. That’s why they’re treated with such reverence—put in temples in our capital cities, and encased in marble and glass.
If laws are the software of politics, and constitutions the operating system, then the state (or country) is the computer.
Common Questions about Governments Following Laws
A constitution is a type of law that quite literally constitutes a government. It lays out the processes by which lawmakers are selected, the procedures they have to follow, and often the scope and limits on what a government can do.
The United Kingdom doesn’t have a written constitution at all. Instead, true to Britain’s common law tradition, the workings of the House of Commons and its relationship to the House of Lords—all these things are governed by custom and established by precedent. Even the limitations on the monarchy are established by a set of unwritten traditions.
In presidential regimes, there’s a clear separation between the executive and legislative branches.