The Review of Austrian Economics, 14:1, 101–104, 2001.
2001 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Manufactured in The Netherlands.
(1999) Explaining Constitutional Change: A Positive Economics Approach.
Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 250 + x pp., $90.00
Constitutional economics is a relatively young subdiscipline that stands on two main pillars:
the contractarian approach advocated by James Buchanan, and the efﬁcient evolution of
institutions approach promoted by Friedrich Hayek. Voigt ﬁnds merit in both approaches,
but also ﬁnds signiﬁcant drawbacks to them both. Building on the ideas of Buchanan,
Hayek, and others, Voigt offers in this volume a framework for developing a positive theory
of constitutional change.
Voigt does not attempt to explain the origin of constitutional rules, but rather how consti-
tutions change over time, and in this way is closer to Hayek than to Buchanan. Buchanan,
as well as Nozick and Rawls, have offered theories about how constitutional rules come
into being, and what makes them legitimate. Voigt starts from that point, and wants to
explain how the constitutional rules that do exist can evolve over time. As Voigt depicts
it, constitutional change is the result of a bargaining process between rulers and various
opposition groups. People in this bargaining process act to further their own self-interests.
Rulers want to extract surplus from their citizens, and citizens want to consume government
production at minimum cost. How much surplus government actually can extract from its
citizens depends upon the bargaining strength of those citizens. When conditions change,
that can alter the relative bargaining strength of rulers and of various groups of citizens, and
when the relative bargaining strengths of groups change, constitutional change can occur.
In keeping with the literature, Voigt means by a constitution the structure of generally
accepted rules within which people in a nation interact. Some constitutional rules may be
written down, as with the U.S. Constitution, but the bulk of a constitution will be unwritten
but generally agreed-upon rules for collective action and for individual interaction. Voigt
develops his theory in very abstract form, but provides historical examples to illustrate his
points. The history helps illustrate how his theory might be applied to the real world, but
falls short of representing an empirical test of his theories. And Voigt does make it clear
that his ultimate goal is to develop an empirically testable theory of constitutions.
Voigt’s constitutional vision emphasizes the distinction between internal and external
institutions, and some of his best insights fall out of this distinction. Internal institutions
are enforced by the members of a society, and include social norms, rules of conduct,
and perhaps even some types of political behavior. External institutions are those that are
enforced by the state. Voigt makes the argument that the success of external institutions
depends upon having the right framework of internal institutions. Thus, while many Latin
American governments established written constitutions that closely resemble the United
States Constitution, Latin American governments have not worked like the U.S. government
in practice because those nations did not have the same foundation of internal institutions