In my previous post I listed aspects of the constitution that the Constitutional Assembly is charged with reviewing. In short, it touches on every major political institutions and, as a consequence, the Icelandic political system could end up looking significantly different from what it looks like today. That is very exciting. What is less exciting is that the Constitutional Assembly gets mere two months two come up with proposals for amendment – although it can be extended for another two months. For sake of argument let us suppose it is extended and consider the possibility of the assembly making an informed decision in four months.
The aspects of the constitution target for review are not minor things – these are institutions that have preoccupied political scientists since, well, the beginning of political science. Some of these political scientists have gained a fairly solid understanding of. We know, for example, a fair amount about how electoral systems work and how they affect the behavior of voters and politicians. Other aspect, such as the relationship between the executive and the legislature we know far less about. But even for those aspects, there is a fairly large literature.
Supposing that in order to make an informed decision, the members of the Constitutional Assembly needed to familiarize themselves with this literature. Is it reasonable to assume that four months are enough? Thankfully, we do know that there are people that actually study these very issues – it normally takes them 4-5 years to earn a Ph.D. Now admittedly, a good chunk of that time goes into doing actual research and writing a dissertation but typically Ph.D. students complete two years of coursework (in the U.S.). And, of course, a good chunk of those two years go into learning how to conduct research, i.e., research design, statistics, etc. So we might reasonably say that Ph.D. students spend perhaps a year learning about ‘politics’. That may not seem like a long time but it is good deal longer than four months. Add to that the fact the graduate students tend to specialize – the average graduate students may be introduced to the literature about most of the political institutions being addressed by the Constitutional Assembly but most will only qualify as having a thorough understanding of the functioning of at best a few of them. And graduate students don’t achieve this on their own – they benefit from studying in the company of people that are specialists in the field often with years of experience studying and researching these institutions. In other words, even in the most favorable of circumstances, a year of studying is not going to make anyone an expert in constitutional engineering.
This characterization is, however, misleading in that it ignores the value in learning how to conduct research. Learning how to do research provides graduate students with the necessary tools to read the literature and evaluate its findings. While such skills may not be necessary to read the literature and getting the main message, training in the use of research methods equips the reader to absorb the findings more quickly and in a more critical fashion. In sum, four months would seem to vastly underestimate the task at hand.
There are additional reasons why four months is an insufficient time. Consider our extent of knowledge about Iceland politics. I would argue that our understanding of politics in Iceland is sorely lacking. At best, there is at best a handful of scholars that have dedicated their efforts to the study of Icelandic politics. Despite their efforts, which have been significant, there is still a lot we do not know – there is only so much such a small group of scholars can achieve. Take, for example, the literature about the Icelandic parliament. To the best of my knowledge, the extent of systematic analysis of parliament consists of a two studies (I may be missing some… but not by much). Contrast that with the literature on the U.S. Congress which consists of hundreds, if not thousands, of studies. The U.S. is probably the most studied legislature in the world but comparison with any developed world would reveal that we know far less about the Icelandic parliament than almost any other legislature.
Yet one of the mandates of the Constitutional Assembly is to examine the relationship between the executive and the legislature – where, I believe, the underlying motivation is most likely to strengthen the powers of parliament. Yet the evidence for the Icelandic parliament being a weak institution with little influence on policy is more or less anecdotal and I would argue that we simply do not know whether that is true. The common wisdom about parliaments, in general, has been that they are dominated by the cabinet but recent research, e.g., by Martin and Vanberg (forthcoming), can be seen to challenge this assumption. It is possible that the Icelandic parliament may fit that profile – the classic institutional measure of the strength of the legislature suggest that the Icelandic parliament is a fairly strong one (Strom 1984). I do not single the literature about the Icelandic parliament out because it is an easy target – the same is true about most aspects of Icelandic politics. In other words, it is not obvious to me that we know enough about Icelandic politics in order to make very informed decisions about how to revise the constitution. So in that sense, maybe four months is more than enough.