Against Design

Caryn Devins, Roger Koppl, Stuart Kauffman & Teppo Felin.

Institutions and the incentives they create can be designed or redesigned to produce desired outcomes. But design does not work if social and economic dynamics are “creative.” If it is impossible to know in advance how an institution will change behavior and incentives—and what interests it may serve or harm in the future—then it is impossible to “design” optimal institutions. Like organisms, institutions are adaptive functional wholes that change in unpredictable and unprestateable ways.

We examine the history of interpretations of the United States Constitution to illustrate the unpredictable and unprestateable dynamics of institutional change. We highlight how innovative interpretations of the Commerce Clause crafted in the civil rights context of the 1960s provided legal support to the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, which has been used to disproportionately target African Americans in the “War on Drugs.” Further, we explain how judicial expansion of procedural due process rights for criminal defendants created unintended consequences that ultimately undermined safeguards against overzealous prosecution. Our analysis suggests that two leading theories of constitutional interpretation, originalism and living constitutionalism, are both unsatisfactory. Originalists do not adequately recognize that the present differs from the past. Novel situations unimaginable to the framers make it possible to have multiple, inconsistent, but equally originalist interpretations of the Constitution. Living constitutionalists do not adequately recognize that the future will differ from the present. Present interpretations enable entirely new and unforeseen laws, which may produce outcomes opposite to those intended by the crafters of present interpretations. For this reason, both theories have morphed over time and become more similar, showing that theory itself defies design.

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