Nature of Constitutions


Following Thomas Hobbes, public-choice economists have theorized that constitutions arise from agreements among subordinates to establish private rules for their own transactions with each other. They then supposedly delegate to a sovereign the obligation to enforce these rules. The sovereign then violates the constitution by instituting wrong-headed rules to govern the subordinates' relations with each other. Instead, it seems more realistic to see constitutions as arising from subordinates' agreements with each other to resist excessive appropriations. An advanced constitution is a substitute for this original type of agreement, which only works well when the subordinates' numbers are small, as in some hunter-gatherer societies. An advanced constitution also limits a sovereign's appropriations, arises only from subordinates' threats of the sovereign, and marshals the sovereign's own instruments of force against him.