Simplicity is beautiful: How to build a democracy

The Arab Spring is over a year old now. It’s too early to tell if that movement will bring liberal democracy to countries that badly need it. But if it does succeed, it will be right in line with a decades-long global trend. According to Freedom House, 41 percent of the world’s countries in 1989 were democracies. By 2011, 60 percent were democracies.

There are still a few monarchies here and there, and plenty of dictatorships. Cuba and North Korea are even keeping the last dying embers of communism alight. But more and more, democracy is seen as the way to go.

This is a wonderful development. But not all democracies succeed. Without the proper institutions, democracy can be very temporary, as Russia has found out.

One of the first things any new democracy needs is a constitution. This document’s job is to establish the new government’s structure — how the executive, legislative, and judicial branches are composed, what their powers are (and aren’t!), and a few rules of procedure. The more simply it can do these things, the better.

The U.S. Constitution is a model of simplicity. That’s the secret of its success. You can read the whole thing in under a half hour. It’s only about 8,000 words long, including the amendments. It doesn’t need to outline the specifics of agricultural or trade policy. That’s Congress’s job.

The European Union’s de facto constitution is quite different. It runs well over 200 pages. Where the U.S. Constitution paints with a broad brush, the E.U.’s constitution fills in every last detail. According to a forthcoming study by David Law of Washington University in St. Louis and Mila Versteeg of the University of Virginia, new democracies are increasingly turning to the E.U.’s top-down model and rejecting the U.S. Constitution’s more bottom-up approach.

The thinking goes, “How can something so simple possibly work when the modern world is such a complicated place? The 21st century is very different from the 18th century.”

Good question. The answer is that those extra layers of complexity are precisely why a bottom-up approach is more important than ever. Top-down governance is hard enough even in a simple agrarian economy. It’s literally impossible in a world like ours.

Even here in the U.S., interest groups from all sides of the political spectrum fill up more and more Washington real estate every year. That’s because they know that the more top-down federal rules and regulations there are, the easier they are to subvert or, failing that, to manipulate in their favor.

The lesson for would-be democracies is to keep it simple — especially with constitutions, but also with laws and regulations. Simple, clear, and few.