The concepts of constitution and constitutionalism refer to the legal framework of a country. While constitution is often defined as the “supreme law of a country,” constitutionalism is a system of governance under which the power of the government is limited by the rule of law. Constitutionalism recognizes the need of limiting concentration of power in order to protect the rights of groups and individuals. In such system, the power of the government can be limited by the constitution – and by the provisions and regulations contained in it – but also by other measures and norms. In order to understand the two concepts – as well as their similarities and differences – it is important to understand their history and evolution. The idea of constitution has changed significantly compared to the first examples seen in ancient Greece, while the concept of constitutionalism has grown around the principle that the authority of the government is derived from and limited by a set of rules and laws.
What is Constitution?
The definition of constitution is quite complex and has significantly evolved during the last two centuries. According to the Western conception, constitution is the document that contains the basic and fundamental law of the nation, setting out the organization of the government and the principles of the society. Yet, although many countries have a written constitution, we continue to see the phenomenon of “living constitution” in many parts of the world. As society change, so do laws and regulations. Furthermore, in some cases there is no single document that defines all aspects of the state, but rather several different documents and agreements that define the power of the government and provide a comprehensive – although not unitary – legal framework. Constitution has also been defined as:
- Basic norm (or law) of the state;
- System of integration and organization of norms and laws; and
- Organization of the government.
The constitution provides the foundation of the government, structuring the political organization and guaranteeing individual and collective rights and freedoms.
What is Constitutionalism?
Constitutionalism is a system of governance in which the power of the government is limited by laws, checks and balances, in order to reconcile authority with individual and collective freedoms. The principle of constitutionalism must be understood in opposition to nonconstitutionalism – a system in which the government uses its powers in an arbitrary fashion, without respecting the citizens’ rights.
The idea of constitutionalism (and of constitution) is strictly linked with the progress and spread of democracies. In monarchic, totalitarian and dictatorial systems there is generally no constitution or, if it exists it is not respected. Individual and collective rights are often disregarded in dictatorial regimes, and the government cannot be held accountable as there is no legal document that defines its limits. The concept of constitutionalism has evolved during the last few centuries thanks to political changes and progress of democratic ideals.
Similarities between Constitution and Constitutionalism
Constitution and constitutionalism are overlapping concepts, although the first refer to a written body of laws and legislation and the second is a complex principle and system of governance. Some of the similarities between the two include:
- Both refer to the limits and features of the system of governance of a country. Constitutionalism would not exist without a constitution, and a constitutional way of governing a country requires limits and boundaries to the central authority;
- Both influence the actions of both government and population. Besides providing a framework for political and institutional structure, the constitution sets out the main rules that all citizens should respect. Furthermore, ruling in a constitutional manner means that the government applies the regulations outlined in the constitution to limit and manage the citizens’ acts – always respecting individual and collective rights;
- Both protect and preserve individual and collective rights, preventing the central government from abusing of its powers and infringing on the citizens’ basic freedoms; and
- Both have evolved and significantly changed during the last few centuries, benefiting from the spread of democratic ideals and becoming key features of the majority of Western countries.
Difference between Constitution and Constitutionalism
The main difference between constitution and constitutionalism lies in the fact that the constitution is generally a written document, created by the government (often with the participation of the civil society), while constitutionalism is a principle and a system of governance that respects the rule of law and limits the power of the government. Most modern constitutions were written years ago, but laws and norms had already been evolving and mutating for centuries, and continue to do so. The constitution (and laws in general) is a living entity that should adapt to the changing features of the modern world and of modern societies. Failing to adapt the constitution – without losing its core principles and values – may lead to an obsolete and unadapt governance system. Other differences between the two concepts include:
- Constitutionalism is based on the principles outlined in the constitution – or in other core legal documents – but it is also a principle of its own. The idea of constitutionalism is opposed to the concept of authoritarian and despotic rule and is based on the belief that the power of the government should be limited in order to prevent abuses and excesses;
- The constitution is often a written document, while the principles of constitutionalism are generally unwritten. Both constitution and constitutionalism evolve with the promulgation of democratic ideals – although they do not always proceed at the same speed. There can be a constitutional form of governance – that respects the rights of the citizens and promotes democratic values – even though the national constitution is outdated. At the same time, an inefficient democratic government may not be able to rule in a constitutional way, despite the existence of a constitution.
Constitution vs Constitutionalism
The concepts of constitution and constitutionalism are strictly linked, but the second is much more than just the respect and enforcement of the national constitution (as the term might suggest). The creation of a constitution is the result of years of progress and evolution, but, in some cases – like in Japan – the constitution can be imposed by invading or opposing forces, and may not embody the key values and principles that characterize a society. Building on the differences outlined in the previous section, we can identify few other aspects that differentiate constitution and constitutionalism.
Comparison Chart of Constitution vs Constitutionalism
Summary of Constitution vs Constitutionalism
A constitution is an official document that contains provisions that determine the structure of the government and of the country’s political institutions, and that sets out regulations and limits for government and citizens. Conversely, constitutionalism is a system of governance defined in opposition to unconstitutionalism and authoritarianism. Constitutionalism is a principle that recognizes the need to limit the power of the central government, in order to protect basic right and freedoms of the population.
Therefore, both concepts are linked to the idea of limiting the power of the government – and somehow creating boundaries for the acts of the citizens as well – but they are very different in nature. Constitutions, which are a key feature of today’s western societies, have evolved during centuries and continue (or should continue) to adapt to the changing nature of societies and political systems. Both constitution and constitutionalism are tied to the idea of democracy and provide the legal framework for citizens to enjoy individual and collective rights. The constitution is the basic law and backbone of a country, while constitutionalism is the system of governance based on the constitution – or on other core documents – and constitutional principles. In a constitutional system, the authority of the government depends on its compliance with the limitations under the law, which are often contained in the national constitution.