The advantages of a written constitution (and its disadvantages) can be summarized as follows.
- Protection of minority interests
- It gives a sense of certainty
- Easy to consult and verify
- It is difficult to manipulate
- Clear separation of powers
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The disadvantages of a written constitution include the following.
- It is expensive to operate.
- Delays in decision making
- It is too rigid.
- Conflict among the organs of government
- It undermines efficiency in government
- Its wording is too difficult to understand
In this Government tutorial, we shall explain the advantages of a written constitution and its disadvantages.
However, for us to get a clear understanding of the pros and cons of a written constitution, we shall start with a brief definition of the term, ‘written constitution’.
So let’s begin by answering the question what is a written constitution?
Definition of a Written Constitution
A written constitution is a single document that contains the set of rules according to which a state is governed. This implies that the basic laws governing the operations of the state apparatus are written down and codified in one formal document.
Unlike an unwritten constitution, a written constitution tends to be rigid. In other words, written constitutions, due to their complexity, are difficult to amend.
Countries That Have Written Constitutions
Examples of countries with a written constitution are the US, South Africa, India, Nigeria, Pakistan, Ghana, The Gambia, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Most countries that practice the federal form of government operate written constitutions.
Advantages of a Written Constitution
Now we can identify the merits or benefits of a written constitution. Note that the majority of constitutional democracies in the world today have written constitutions. Clearly, there must be some compelling advantages of a written constitution over an unwritten constitution.
Let’s have a look.
1. Protection of Minority Interests
A written constitution is more capable of protecting minority interests and preventing majority tyranny. Provisions safeguarding the interests of minority groups are usually entrenched in a written constitution.
This is one reason why most federal republics adopt a written constitution. Entrenched constitutional clauses are difficult to amend or remove. Therefore minority groups can rest assured that the more powerful states will not take away their rights.
2. High Sense of Certainty
Second among the advantages of a written constitution is that it gives the people a sense of certainty.
As one document, a written constitution offers interested citizens a great opportunity to read and know what their rights and duties are. Citizens are better placed to detect any difference between theory and practice with regard to the exercise of political power.
In short, the written constitution is definite, predictable and gives the people much confidence.
3. Easy to Consult
Unlike the unwritten constitution, a written constitution can be consulted very easily. This is made possible by the fact that it is a single document containing all the rules according to which the state must be governed.
For instance, whenever there is disagreement over the constitutionality or otherwise of an action by the government, citizens are able to quickly consult the provisions in a written constitution to clear the confusion.
4. Difficult to Manipulate
Again, power-hungry politicians find it difficult to change the provisions in a written constitution to suit their whims and caprices.
In many African countries, for example, leaders who want to extend their rule beyond the constitutional limit have to contend with the ire of the citizenry who are aware of what the constitution says about such an issue.
Additionally, the complex procedures for amending a written constitution protect it from frequent arbitrary changes.
The bottom line is that the rigid nature and the entrenched clauses in a written constitution, make it difficult for government officials to manipulate at will. Under a written constitution, it is not easy to set the law aside to pave the way for the abuse of the fundamental rights of the citizenry.
5. Clear Separation of Powers
Last but not least, due to a clearer separation of powers, a written constitution may prevent frequent conflicts between the three organs of government namely the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. This is among the most important advantages of a written constitution.
Since the functions of each organ of government are written down in black and white, it is expected that each would know where its powers end and where the other’s begin. Thus, the likelihood of friction among government officials and institutions is greatly reduced by a written constitution.
Disadvantages of a Written Constitution
Just like every other thing, a written constitution has some disadvantages too. Critics of a written constitution point to such disadvantages as its expensive nature, its complexity and its tendency to delay government action, especially during an emergency.
See below the major disadvantages of a written constitution.
1. It is expensive to operate
A written constitution is expensive to operate since amendment procedures usually cost time and money. Consensus building is necessary prior to the amendment of a written constitution. The cost of organizing, public forums, consultations and referenda can be too high for the state to bear.
2. It is too rigid.
One of the most-cited disadvantages of a written constitution is that it is too rigid and may therefore cause political instability. Since it is not easy to change the rules in a written constitution it stands a good chance of becoming outmoded.
This is what unfortunately gives room for political adventurers in the armed forces, for example, to overthrow a written constitution under flimsy excuses.
3. A written constitution delays decision-making.
Critics of a written constitution are of the opinion that its multiple rules disrupt the decision-making process of government. It slows down government business during emergencies.
This is the time when the cabinet or the chief executive needs to take on extraordinary powers to enable them to address the situation quickly and effectively.
4. It can create conflict within the government.
We saw early on that compared to an unwritten constitution, a written constitution spells out more clearly the separate functions of the various organs of government. This, we observed, might prevent conflict among them.
However, the overlapping (fusion) of powers and checks and balances as provided for in the written constitution still lead to frequent conflict situations among government institutions and personnel.
The legislature, for example, may accuse the executive or the judiciary of encroaching on its powers. Conflicts and disagreements arise mainly because it is difficult to say exactly where the boundaries lie.
5. It undermines efficiency in government.
Another major shortcoming of a written constitution is that it may undermine the actual work of government if time is spent on frequent amendments.
By its nature, a written constitution needs frequent amendments and interpretations to be able to meet the present and future needs of the people.
The time and resources that go into these frequent amendments could have been used to improve the welfare of citizens. As social discontent spreads, a possible outcome is a political upheaval.
6. Written constitutions are difficult to understand.
Unlike the unwritten traditions and conventions associated with the unwritten constitution, the language used in writing a written constitution is too technical for ordinary citizens to read and understand. Thus, citizens tend to lose interest in their written constitution because it is voluminous and requires a lot of effort to comprehend what it is saying.
In fact, most written constitutions easily become the exclusive preserve of constitutional lawyers and other members of the political class.
A written constitution may therefore alienate the masses thereby undermining popular participation in the democratic process.
Wrapping it up
We have observed that just as there are advantages of a written constitution, it also has serious drawbacks. So tell me, based on the merits and demerits, which one would you prefer for your country? A written or an unwritten constitution?
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