Anti-constitutional moments?

In our most recent paper, a work-in-progress titled “Gödel’s Interbellum,” we borrow Bruce Ackerman’s influential theory of “constitutional moments” in order to survey the major extra-constitutional events unfolding in Europe during the interwar period between World War I and World War II. Specifically, we expand on the idea of constitutional moments to embrace “anti-constitutional moments,” that is, moments when major political change occurs outside the constitutional process, such as military coups, putsches, states of emergencies, self-coups, and other unconstitutional seizures of power.

Moreover, as we explain in our paper, such anti-constitutional moments may have also played a role in Kurt Gödel’s purported discovery in late 1947 of a logical contradiction in the U.S. Constitution–what we have called “Gödel’s Loophole” in our previous paper with the same title. Although Gödel’s discovery has been discounted as nonsense or as highly improbable, this negative assessment ignores Gödel’s Central European background and the dramatic constitutional histories of many Central European states during the interbellum period. Specifically, during his years at the University Vienna (1924-1940)–first as a student and then as a lecturer–Gödel would have noticed that every constitutional democracy in Central Europe ended in dictatorship.

We thus survey in our paper the series of “anti-constitutional moments” unfolding in interbellum Europe in order to shed some light on Kurt Gödel’s later discovery of a logical contradiction in the U.S. Constitution. By all accounts, Gödel’s main concern was the theoretical possibility of a constitutional or legalized dictatorship. But how likely is this possibility as a practical matter? It turns out, very likely, if the constitutional history of interbellum Europe is any guide. (Our paper is still very much a rough draft, so any criticisms–especially destructive ones–are welcome!)

Do memes exist?

To us, memes are like the luminiferous aether in Newtonian physics–a purely make-believe or hypothetical entity that does not really exist “out there” in space or time. In footnote 56 of our autobiographical essay, for example, we write:

… despite my general admiration* for [Richard] Dawkins, he and I completely part ways when it comes to “memes.” [*Note: I wrote these words before having read Dawkins's dogmatic and intolerant screed The God Delusion.] Towards the end of his book [The Selfish Gene], Dawkins speculates about the spread of ideas and introduces the concept of memes in order to explain the evolution of human culture. In essence, Dawkins draws a crude analogy between memes and genes: if the evolution of living organisms is the product of changing gene frequencies over time, then the evolution of ideas must likewise be the result of the fierce competition among rival idea-memes … The problem with memes, however, is that they just plain and simple don’t exist—and pretending that they do is nothing but quackery on a par with astrology or alchemy. Memes are a fairy tale. They have no independent existence. They are unfalsifiable entities, like gods or boogie monsters.

We are by no means denying the existence of ideas. What we are denying is that ideas come in discrete packages called “memes.” After all, aside from simply offering conclusory statements positing the existence of memes, how would one test for their existence?

Where did all the luminiferous ether go?

“What scientific idea is ready for retirement?”

That’s the 2014 annual question posted on the website (Previous Edge questions include “What is your dangerous idea?” (2006) and “What questions are you asking yourself?” (1998).) As we explain in our post of 8.31.14, we would retire Richard Dawkins’s evolutionary theory of memes.


The economics of parking

Are there too few parking spaces in your city or campus … or too many? Professors Mikhail Chester, Arpad Horvath, and Samer Madanat try to calculate the social costs of parking in their six-page report “Parking Infrastructure and the Environment” published in 2011. (By the way, why can’t papers by legal scholars be this short?)

Where do I park?

Earth at night

What does this beautiful night map tell us about the relationship between population density and prosperity? Image courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory.


How many civilians, on average, do police forces in the United States kill each year? Legal scholar Richard Epstein, however, asks a different lethal-force question:

Police officer deaths in the line of duty, year to date for 2014, were 67 of which 27 were by gunfire. For the full year of 2013, the numbers were 105 total deaths, with 30 by gunfire. It would be odd to say that police officer deaths (which are more common than deaths to citizens from police officers) should not count…

In fact, according to the folks at DataLab at FiveThirtyEight, Richard Epstein has his facts wrong. The police kill on average 1000 people a year. (Hat tip to Alex Tabarrok.)

License to kill?


100-metre dash

Jamaica’s Usain Bolt is still the fastest man on the planet.