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Constitutional Archetypes
Texas Law Review (2016)
  • David S Law
It is a core function of constitutions to justify the existence and organization of the state. The ideological narratives embedded in constitutions are not fundamentally unique, however, but instead derive from a limited number of competing models. Each model is defined by a particular type of justification for the existence and organization of the state, and by a symbiotic relationship with a particular legal tradition. These models are so ubiquitous and elemental that they amount to constitutional archetypes.

This Article contends as an empirical matter that constitutional narratives of the state boil down to a combination of three basic archetypes–namely, a liberal archetype, a statist archetype, and a universalist archetype. The liberal archetype is closely identified with the common law tradition and views the state as a potentially oppressive concentration of authority in need of regulation and restraint. In keeping with this conception of the state, liberal constitutions emphasize the imposition of limits upon government in the form of negative and procedural rights, as well as a strong and independent judiciary to make these limits effective. The legitimacy of the state is contingent upon adherence to constitutional limits. Constitutions in this vein are largely agnostic as to what goals, if any, society as a whole should pursue through the mechanism of the state.

The statist archetype, in contrast, is associated with the civil law tradition and hails the state as the embodiment of a distinctive community and the vehicle for the achievement of the community’s goals. The legitimacy of the state rests upon the strength of the state’s claim to represent the will of a community. Consequently, constitutions in this vein are attentive to the identity, membership, and symbols of the state. Other characteristics of a statist constitution include an emphasis on the articulation of collective goals and positive rights that contemplate an active role for the state, and an obligation on the part of citizens to cooperate with the state in the pursuit of shared goals.

The universalist archetype, the newest and most prevalent of the three, both draws upon and reinforces international law. It involves an ideological commitment to the notion that there exist universally applicable constitutional norms that all states must respect. From the universalist perspective, the legitimacy and authority of the state derive not from membership in a community or autonomy from the state, but rather from the normative force of the international legal order. Characteristics of this archetype include explicit commitment to supranational institutions and supranational law and reliance on generic terms and concepts that can be found not only in a variety of national constitutions, but also in international legal instruments.

Empirical evidence of the dominance and ubiquity of these three basic archetypes can be found in the unlikeliest of places – namely, constitutional preambles. Preambles enjoy a reputation for expressing uniquely national values, identities, and narratives. If there is any part of a constitution that ought not to be reducible to a handful of recurring patterns, it is surely the preamble. Yet analysis of the world’s constitutional preambles using methods from computational linguistics suggests that they do, in fact, break down into a combination of the three basic archetypes. 

The same analysis also yields empirical evidence of the growing commingling and interdependence of international law and constitutional law. The language of the universalist archetype mirrors the language of leading international human rights instruments. The high levels of universalist content found across the majority of preambles suggest the emergence of a shared constitutional dialect that spans the divide between domestic constitutional law and public international law. The popularity of universalism likely reflects the impact of supranational law and supranational institutions on domestic legal orders over the course of the post-war period.
  • constitution,
  • archetype,
  • ideology,
  • international law,
  • constitutional law,
  • preamble,
  • statism,
  • liberalism,
  • universalism,
  • text analysis,
  • legal traditions,
  • empirical,
  • content analysis,
  • topic model,
  • structural topic model,
  • automated,
  • constitutional drafting,
  • constitution-making
Publication Date
February, 2016
Citation Information
David S Law. "Constitutional Archetypes" Texas Law Review Vol. 95 (2016) p. 103
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