Strong Constitutions: Social-Cognitive Origins of the Separation of Powers

By Garro, Alejandro | Americas Quarterly, Winter 2014 | Go to article overview

Strong Constitutions: Social-Cognitive Origins of the Separation of Powers


Garro, Alejandro, Americas Quarterly


Strong Constitutions: Social-Cognitive Origins of the Separation of Powers

Maxwell A. Cameron Oxford University Press, 2013, Hardcover, 255 pages

Power appears strongest when it is centralized and unified, so the idea that political power is most efficiently exercised when it is divided among different branches of government is somewhat counterin- tuitive. Yet, in his book on political theory, Strong Constitutions: Social- Cognitive Origins of the Separation of Powers, Maxwell Cameron argues that dividing power is a basic tenet of con- stitutional government and modern liberal democracy.

Most democracies delegate sepa- rate but equal functions to different branches of government: parliaments or legislative assemblies make laws; judges interpret and apply the laws; and the executive enforces them. These are commonly ascribed to le- gal doctrine, but Cameron invites us to think about this type of political organization in a different way, by tracing it to the evolution of com- munication and its impact on social- cognitive change.

Cameron identifies the origins of the idea of separation of powers with the spread of literacy, the Gutenberg revolution, and the industrial and electronic revolutions that brought about mass politics, and with it the spread of literacy and the evolution of institutional design. Turning to Latin America, he connects the spread of print culture in eighteenth-century Mexico to the formation of public opinion and a growing sense of na- tionalism that led to the indepen- dence movement. After independence, the spread of the press in Mexico City, Lima, Buenos Aires, and in other ma- jor Latin American cities went hand- in-hand with the adoption of written constitutions, support for freedom of the press, and recognition of the need for educational reform.

Building on selected classical (Aris- totle, Montesquieu) and contemporary (Habermas) political theory, Cameron focuses on the role played by language and communication in the choice of mechanisms providing for the enforce- ment of the law- an essential ingre- dient to generate "collectively desired outcomes." As he observes, a person without cognitive abilities cannot de- liberate or measure the consequences of his or her actions. Moreover, some- one incapable of deliberating cannot exercise moral judgment.

It follows therefore that the key to an individual's capacity for delibera- tion, execution and judgment is the ability to communicate-hence the relevance of language.

The role of written language, he concludes, is crucial in making the jump from deliberation to coordi- nated collective action. Through writing, theories that criticize and challenge power are legitimized.

There is an intimate connection be- tween written texts and constitutions. Cameron suggests that the advent of reading and writing, by making it pos- sible to create written constitutions and legal codes, enabled long-term in- stitutional arrangements and an en- during constitutional order. …

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