Many economists hold the view that constitutions don’t affect policy. The argument goes roughly like this: “If most people want to do X, no sentence on a musty piece of parchment is going to stop them.” Even if this argument is correct, however, constitutions might work anyway. How? By changing what people want.

Lots of people believe whatever the Bible says; maybe some people prefer whatever the Constitution recommends. Looking over the General Social Survey, I noticed a rather striking example.

There are two related questions on the GSS. Question #1 reads:

Under the First Amendment guaranteeing free speech, people should be allowed to express their own opinions even if they are harmful or offensive to members of other religious or racial groups.

Question #2 reads:

People should not be allowed to express opinions that are harmful or offensive to members of other religious or racial groups.

There is one superficial difference: The first question asks people if they agree with free speech, and the second asks people if they agree with censorship. Maybe that matters too, but the big difference is that the first question mentions the Constitution and the second does not. The results are below.

Question 1

Question 2

Strongly Agree












Strongly Disagree



Support for free speech is plainly higher in Question 1. More strikingly, the median response to Question 1 is different, too. The median person agrees with free speech if you link it to the Constitution. Otherwise, the median person could take it or leave it.

I bet examples like this would be easy to multiply. I suspect, for example, that the Supreme Court’s rulings against regulation during the Lochner era not only restrained majority excesses; they also probably reduced the majority’s support for regulation. No wonder political activists spend so much time in seemingly fruitless quarrels about “what the Constitution really means.” While many people seem to think that the Constitution always favors whatever policy they prefer, there are actually quite a few people who prefer whatever policy they think the Constitution favors.