Bryan Caplan  

Magna Carta Club

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In my Public Choice lecture on Constitutions, I challenged Buchanan's real (not merely hypothetical) "veil of ignorance" view. My claim:

There may be some constitutional rules where a veil of ignorance applies...  But most constitutional rules are about permanently locking in existing political advantages.

I then present supportive evidence from the U.S. Constitution. 

While walking down Carow Hall today, though, I noticed a copy of the Magna Carta on the wall, and reflected that I've never read it.  Then a challenge came to mind: Whose view of constitutions will predict better "out of sample" on the Magna Carta - Buchanan's, or mine?

So here's my proposal.  Let's have a "book club" on the Magna Carta.  We'll read it together, then race the "veil of ignorance" theory against the "political advantage lock-in theory."  This translation has 37 paragraphs, so I suggest that for Monday, we read the preamble and grafs 1-9.  Then I'll blog my assessment, and you can tell me whether my coding is fair.

Interested?


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COMMENTS (9 to date)

Yes!
Lets do it

Dan writes:

Yes! But I don't think it's a good example. First, the Magna Carta is a peculiar example of concessions being forced out of a King by barons with a knife to his throat, so it isn't really the same thing as a constitution being decided on democratically. It's not a "public" "choice" at all so Buchanan's theory wouldn't be expected to describe it. It is quite clearly one group locking in its momentary political advantage.

More importantly, it isn't actually a constitution; it's almost entirely a bill of rights. From behind your own experimental veil of ignorance I know you may not want to peek and see whether it fits before making a prediction, but I don't think it is appropriate for this experiment, much as I love it. Why not look at a modern democratically (or semi-democratically) selected constitution of a different country? There are plenty that were drafted as recently as the past few decades and about which we have far more information.

Doc Merlin writes:

The Magna Carta really supports your view. It is explicitly about locking in political privileges, and those are listed. For more amusement you can find the same in the EU constitution. The US constitution has a lot less of that than most I have seen.

The "Veil of Ignorance" view is probably partially correct for constitutions, but I have to agree with you that it can't be fully correct.

David R. Henderson writes:

I'm in. In your lecture notes that you link to (excellent notes, btw), what does SIVH mean?

Bryan Caplan writes:

David, SIVH="Self-Interested Voter Hypothesis." See this lecture for more.

scott clark writes:

I believe SIVH is self-interested voter hypothesis

scott clark writes:

I was too slow

David R. Henderson writes:

Thanks, Bryan and Scott.
As I was driving along, I said, "Of course, given Bryan's work, it must be self-interested voter hypothesis." I teach your point in the two hours I spend on public choice. Just forgot the name.

Jeremy, Alabama writes:

Let us gather on Runnymede.

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