Could Present Laws Legitimately Bind Future Generations? A Normative Analysis of the Jeffersonian Model

Shai Agmon


Thomas Jefferson’s famous proposal, whereby a state’s constitution should be re-enacted every 19 years by a majority vote, purports to solve the intergenerational problem caused by perpetual constitutions: namely that laws which were enacted by people who are already dead bind living citizens without their consent. I argue that the model fails to fulfil its own normative consent-based aspirations. This is because it produces two groups of people who will end up living under laws to which they did not give their consent: (a) citizens who reach the voting age after the re-enactment process; (b) citizens who did not assent to being obliged by the majority vote’s results. I reject possible responses to my argument by showing that they result in making the model either impractical or redundant. The remainder of the paper discusses whether implementing the model would enhance the consent-based legitimacy of the modern state.

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