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March 9, 2011

Hungary’s iPad Constitution

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In what will surely be a publicity boon for Apple, especially among political scientists, Hungary’s new constitution is being written on an iPad.

Thus far, this is one of the best-known bits of information concerning Hungary’s current constitutional drafting process. But lovers of liberty should take note of Hungary’s project not because it is a technological milestone, but because it represents a rare moment for constitutionalism and the rule of law.

It is also a singular, albeit uncertain, moment in Hungary’s history.

For that reason, the proposed text and the ideas that inspire it are far more important than the medium on which the words are written. James Madison, the primary drafter of the U.S. Constitution, would surely have made good use of our many technological advances. He would undoubtedly object, however, to the diminished importance of basic philosophical truths and the erosion of understanding in matters of history and human nature in modern political discourse.

In preparation for the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Madison steeped himself in the classics and studied the early Greek democracies and Roman republics in order to learn from their successes and avoid their mistakes. Madison also drew much wisdom from the Enlightenment thinking of John Locke and Montesquieu, who wrote of the importance of social compacts and the separation of powers, respectively. From his studies, Madison came to believe that America could successfully become an extended republic, if the rule of law could be instituted in such a way as to frustrate the tendency of government to erode the liberties of the people. He arrived in Philadelphia with a draft text that he presented to the delegates, most of whom had engaged in their own study of history and human nature in preparation for their monumental task.

Over the ensuing five months, delegates from the 13 states debated the form of their future government. Most of the debates focused on basic philosophical points, such as the nature of individual rights, the proper relationship between government and society, and the best ways to limit governmental power. There was also a necessary degree of political compromise in order to “secure a more perfect union.”

Next week, the Hungarian parliament is scheduled to declare itself a constitutional convention. It will debate several draft documents over the following five weeks. This may be a very short time in which to conclude such a great matter, but so far the constitutional process (begun last September) has gone according to schedule. The smooth sailing of what is normally a very complex, organic process has prompted some criticism from those who believe that developments are predetermined by the governing Fidesz party, which enjoys a two-thirds majority in parliament, enough to reform the constitution without opposition support.

As Hungary drafts and debates a new constitution, this is undeniably a precarious moment. But it is also a rare opportunity to replace the amended Communist constitution of 1949 and, many believe, a chance to symbolically complete the regime change that began in 1989. As Hungarians contemplate the exact form of their future government and the philosophy on which it will be based, it is vital that terms of great philosophical significance, such as republicanism, self-government, and liberty, be considered on their own merits. No misuse of these terms in practice by individuals, political parties, or popular culture can erode the philosophical truths that they represent and their universal applicability.

America’s constitution was anchored in the universal truths set forth in the Declaration of Independence. These truths have kept America the land of the free and the home of the brave for 235 years. Their timeless relevance can be applied to Hungary’s political circumstances just as surely on an iPad as they can with Madison’s quill pen and parchment paper. But there’s no app for that: It still takes serious philosophical work to apply timeless truths to the particular circumstances at hand. The world will watch with expectation Hungary’s new experiment in establishing good government.

Marion Smith is founding president of the Common Sense Society in Budapest, Hungary, and a graduate fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

First appeared in National Review Online

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