During times of crisis, governments often consider policies that may promote safety, but that would require overstepping constitutionally protected rights. These policies are frequently adopted by the executive, permitted by the courts and legislative branches, and appear to be supported by the public. But it is not apparent whether the public is less supportive of these policies than they would otherwise be because of these constitutional rules. 

We leveraged the COVID-19 pandemic’s unprecedented global threat to study whether, in the face of an emergency, people are willing to moderate their policy views because of constitutional considerations. We fielded survey experiments in the first weeks of the pandemic to nationally representative samples in six geographically and politically diverse countries: the United States, Israel, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and China. The surveys tested whether our combined sample of over 11,600 respondents supported a series of potential liberty-restricting pandemic mitigation policies. We randomly manipulated whether respondents were informed that legal experts believed these policies may be unconstitutional. 

We found that all the liberty-restricting policies we tested were overwhelmingly supported by the respondents from all six countries, and that being told that experts believe the policies are unconstitutional only reduced support for a few of the most extreme policies in just three countries. The county where the constitution had the most impact was Israel, which was under an active lockdown when our survey was conducted. We also found that being told that experts believe the policies are unconstitutional increased support for several of the policies in China, and there is weak evidence that it may have done so in Taiwan as well. Taken together, the results suggest that, during emergencies, constitutional considerations may do little to create public pressure to constrain governments.

Adam Chilton et al., Support for Constitutional Rights During Crisis: Evidence from the Pandemic, American Journal of Comparative Law (2024).