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Holmes: Precommitment and the paradox of democracy

Disclaimer. Don't rely on these old notes in lieu of reading the literature, but they can jog your memory. As a grad student long ago, my peers and I collaborated to write and exchange summaries of political science research. I posted them to a wiki-style website. "Wikisum" is now dead but archived here. I cannot vouch for these notes' accuracy, nor can I say who wrote them.

Holmes. 1995. Precommitment and the paradox of democracy. In Passions and Constraints, pp134-77. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


Holmes, Stephen (1995). "Precommitment and the Paradox of Democracy."

In Passions and Constraint. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 134-77.

Stephen Holmes addresses the problem of constitutional precommitment, wherein the forefathers (founding generation) established a document embodying fundamental laws; these fundamental laws bind successor generations to pre-established rules and procedures. Moreover, this precommitment privileges constitutionally-enshrined laws over the majoritarian principles that ordinarily govern lawmaking within the legislature. The Constitution therefore can be viewed as circumscribing or preventing democracy (negative constitutionalism) or as reinforcing and protecting democracy (positive constitutionalism). Holmes argues for the latter viewpoint, asserting that succeeding generations' acceptance of the Constitution as an inherited document safeguards the procedures of democratic deliberation.

Part One: A History of Political Thought

Constitutional precommitment addresses the classic philosophical problem of binding promises: unlike a morally- and legally-acceptable two-party promise [mutual binding], constitutions (1) bind the initiators [binding oneself] and (2) bind future generations [binding without consent]. The problem with binding oneself is the lack of ability to enforce it: what you promise yourself you can easily fail to deliver.

Part Two: In Defense of Constitutional Precommitment

Positive constitutionalism asserts that fundamental laws protect freedoms. The Constitution achieves this objective by the separation of powers (which enhance capacity by disentangling jurisdiction, promoting cooperation, encouraging specialization, and remaining flexible to shifts in public thought). The separation of powers consequently allows for effective, deliberate, and consistent government.


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Research on similar subjects


Holmes, Stephen (author)Comparative PoliticsConstitutionsDemocracyMajoritarianismInstitutions

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