Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Compatibility of Monarchy and Democracy

I recently ran into a short article I wrote for the Adrian College alumni magazine shortly after I began teaching there in 1964. It has autobiographical elements, but also introduces a way of thinking about democracy that later was a key part of my 1981 college textbook (now available for free at my website). I thought it would be fun to post it here and make it available to the wider world.


Contact Magzine, Adrian College, July 1966.

Although we tend to make a fuss over visiting royalty, it is difficult for most Americans to regard the institution of hereditary monarchy dispassionately. During our very earliest days as a nation monarchy had a bad press, and even today utterance of the word “monarch” tends to conjure up images of George III and colonial exploitation. Consequently it is not surprising that eyebrows are raised and questions are asked when I profess, on occasion, to be a monarchist. The questions people ask me are frequently very penetrating ones, ones worthy of a serious answer. The following paragraphs are devoted to the answers that might be given to four such questions.

1. How is it possible for someone who is not a complete idiot to become a monarchist in this day of enlightenment? There are several alternative ways one might deal with this question.

One approach would be to deny that our age is a particularly enlightened one. But this is only a clever evasion of the real issue.

A second possible reply might be that it isn’t possible. Taking this assertion as the major premise, and “X is a monarchist” as the minor premise, one can form a syllogism, but its conclusion is clearly (I would argue) unacceptable. At least one of the premises must therefore be false.

My own answer would have to be that it isn’t easy. The circumstances leading me to become a monarchist were no doubt somewhat unusual. As an aficionado of science fiction, I happened during my junior year as college political science major to pick up a copy of Robert Heinlein’s novel, Double Star. Since the plot was laid in the future, I most have assumed that the prevailing form of government would be republican. But like most people with assumptions, I was not aware of having assumed anything.

After 115 pages containing nothing incompatible with my assumptions, one of Heinlein’s characters say: “You probably won’t have to do anything. . . . But it isn’t as if it were anything hard. . . .just an audience with the Emperor. . . .” These words completely amazed me. This was my first encounter with the suggestion that the future might produce governments other than republics (whether democratic or totalitarian). A moment’s meditation sufficed to show me, however, that there was nothing inherently impossible about a monarchical future. My amazement at my amazement then initiated a sequence of thoughts that ultimately led me to write a doctoral dissertation on constitutional monarchy.

Evidence gathered in writing my dissertation convinced me that monarchy, whether absolute or constitutional, is a very good form of government. It appeared that absolute monarchy is preferable to alternate types of absolutism (because more easily democratized), and that constitutional monarchy has many advantages over the republican form of democracy.

2. Are monarchy and democracy really compatible? Analysis of this question requires a certain amount of complexity.

Some people have believed that monarchy and democracy are not compatible in any sense. Thomas Paine, for example, felt that “Everything connected with hereditary royalty bears the mark of infamy or folly.” After George V opened the British Parliament in 1933, one deputy shouted at him: “It’s a shame to have all this rubbish and show while people are starving outside. You’re a gang of lazy, idle parasites, living on wealth created by the people.” And the Large Soviet Encyclopedia tells us that “The monarchial form . . . facilitates defense of the bourgeois dictatorship.”

Other individuals may admit that in practice monarchy and democracy have undeniably been able to coexist in many western European countries, but will maintain that in fundamental principle monarchy and democracy are not compatible. The union between monarchy and democracy is thus merely a marriage of convenience, tolerable only because the monarch is not allowed to do anything. It is perhaps in this frame of mind that the Swedish social scientist Herbert Tingsten writes of the monarchy: “Institutions which once were irritating have become harmless . . . .”

Still other people argue that monarchy and democracy are fully compatible in principle as well as capable of coexisting in a marriage of convenience. This happens to be my position. But this happens also to be a position that depends on a particular conception of democracy.

In the western political tradition, there are two different general approaches to defining what is meant by “democracy.” One school of thought regards democracy fairly literally as “government by the people.” The other approach would tend to define democracy as “government by some people whose behavior, by virtue of their desire to be reelected, is limited by the people.”

Only the second conception of democracy is compatible in principle with hereditary monarchy. In a constitutional monarchy, the king reigns by hereditary right. Since the king is not legally or politically accountable, however, actual decisions on matters of government policy are made by the cabinet ministers, whose countersignature is necessary to make the signature of the king legally valid. These ministers who make the ultimate governmental decisions are clearly not the people, but some people----usually less than 20. Of course the cabinet ministers remain in power only as long as they can command majority support in their parliament, and a party or coalition can retain a parliamentary majority as long as it can get the votes of a majority of the electorate. But the electorate does not “govern”; all it can do is vote or threaten to vote one way or another.

The available evidence indicates that democracy in the first sense, “government by the people,” is impossible. All government requires power. Social power is the product of organization. And organization is inherently oligarchical, which is to say that important organizational decisions tend to be made by a few key individuals. Democracies are no exception to this “iron law of oligarchy.” They make it easier to live with by allowing for competition among various oligarchies, and by providing for an ultimate decision by the electorate as to which of the competitors will rule for the time being. But, as Karl Popper has written, “the people do not rule . . . . The government rules. All the people can do is to vote. . . . This proves in practice to be a fairly effective way of restraining governments.”

Since “government by the people” is impossible, limitation of the behavior of those individuals who do govern by the desires of the general public is the essential characteristic of democracy. Thus the existence of an hereditary monarch is not at all incompatible with democracy as long as his behavior is ultimately limited by the desires of the electorate. This necessary limitation is furnished through the mechanism of the counter-signature requirement and cabinet government.

3. Why should the government pay the monarch’s salary if he doesn’t do anything? The principle that “he who does not work does not eat” has considerable appeal, but at least two types of answer are possible to this third question.

In the first place, the monarch does a great deal of useful work. He handles ceremonial duties. He makes innumerable public appearances dedicating dams, inspecting storm damage, promoting his country in foreign goodwill visits, etc. He entertains visiting firemen of all descriptions. While these duties are not matters of cosmic significance in themselves, the fact that the monarch takes care of them releases the prime minister to devote his full energies to the problem of governing. (By contrast, the American president must continuously interrupt his work to receive delegations of Boy Scouts, proclaim National Rutabaga Week, or throw out the first baseball.)

A second reason the monarch deserves his salary is that without doing anything, merely by existing, he makes a great contribution to good government. A monarch is a living symbol of the autonomous nature of the powers of government. When a cabinet has fallen, the monarch does not wait for leaders to come forward on their own; he calls them. This is a realistic example of the way in which political institutions work, a way in which the government is not merely an agent of the people but actually is called upon to lead the people, to make proposals, to take initiatives. Monarchs are ideally suited to symbolize the capacities for initiative inherent and necessary in any government. Owing their status not to any positive action by “the people” but to hereditary right acquiesced in by the people, monarchs by their existence help to combat the false idea that powers “emanate” from the people. The monarch is in effect a symbol of the fact that government depends on the “will of the people,” if at all, for what it cannot do rather than for what it can do.

The existence of a monarch is also useful in the political education of children. In a democratic republic the symbols with which children must be taught the civic virtues and the virtues of civility are relatively high level abstractions such as “constitution,” “republic,” etc., which are very difficult for a child to understand. A monarch is superior to a high level abstraction as a symbol for civil instruction since a king, as Walter Bagehot long ago pointed out, is something which can be understood even by the “vacant many,” a category in which all young children must be included. Singing “God Save the Queen” must have far more concrete meaning for children than singing the American national anthem, which refers to another symbol, the flag, which itself is impersonal and difficult to understand.

Additionally, by virtue of their sheer existence monarchs help to produce a feeling of continuity and stability, to symbolize the permanence of the state amid the flux of daily events. Monarchs tend to last a very long time, even those with comparatively “short” reigns. This is directly traceable, of course, to the hereditary basis of their positions. It may well be that the greater sense of security resulting from the conservative symbolism of monarchs has been a factor permitting a constructive and experimental approach to such things as social legislation, an area in which the European monarchies have gone further than most other countries.

4. Should God save the Queen? A group of students recently traveled from Harvard University to the University of Windsor in Canada to debate this question. I do not know which side, if indeed either, won the debate. If anyone were to ask me such a question, however, it is probably clear from the above remarks that my answer would have to be a resounding: Yes!

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