This paper presents a new data set on constitutional commitments to social rights (CCSR) for 68 countries. Quantitative indices are constructed for five social rights: the right to social security, education, health, housing and workers rights. We find two clear groups classified by legal origins: countries which share the tradition of French civil law generally have a higher CCSR than those that share the tradition of English common law. The CCSR in socialist countries is closer to French civil law, whereas countries with a German or Scandinavian tradition resemble the English common law countries more closely. Then the paper addresses the following question: is the constitution a binding constraint on public policy? We have not found a robust effect of CCSR on public policy except for the constitutional right to social security. Journal of Comparative Economics36 (1) (2008) 103–119.