The idea that kings should reign but not rule is a relatively recent one, especially outside Great Britain. For most of European history, the primary power was held by hereditary sovereigns. This does not mean that most non-constitutional monarchs were “absolute;” indeed, no hereditary sovereign has ever wielded the kind of totalitarian power associated with 20th-century dictators. Even modern democratic states exert more control over many aspects of their citizens’ lives than kings ever did. So first of all, I must make it clear that a defense of traditional monarchy is not a defense of authoritarianism. While the powers of traditional kings may have theoretically been supreme, in practice they were usually rather limited—by the aristocracy, the Church, common law, and the need not to excessively antagonize the common people for fear of rebellion.
Early European monarchs were often elected, not of course by all the people but by members of the elite. However, over time the hereditary principle became more and more entrenched until it was practically inseparable from the idea of monarchy. So when I speak of traditional monarchy, I am referring to a system in which the office of head of state and government is hereditary, usually passed on from father to eldest son.
The idea of hereditary power, even if limited by other branches of government and society, tends to bother modern people, including those who are entirely comfortable with constitutional monarchies. “What if you get a stupid/cruel/insane king?” or some variant is the usual objection. Of course there is no guarantee that hereditary succession will assure competent leadership. But the problem with this objection is that when the alternatives (primarily democracy and dictatorship) are examined objectively, no system of government offers such a guarantee.
There are not many defenders of dictatorship today, which is not surprising since in the 20th century the totalitarian dictators (the most hated of whom, Hitler, was elected) produced bloodbaths which dwarfed the misdeeds of all kings put together. It is democracy that is widely assumed to be such a great improvement over monarchy. I do not agree. To give just one obvious specific example, I am not convinced that the present occupant of the White House offers any proof of the superior judgment and sophistication of elected leaders. Unfortunately, many American presidents have been fairly mediocre; some have been flagrantly corrupt and destructive. Far too many have abused their powers in order to violently meddle in the affairs of other countries, sacrificing thousands of American and foreign lives in the process.
Elected leaders in Europe have for some time now been primarily occupied with plans to erode their nations’ sovereignty with European unification and their cultural harmony with mass immigration, a dual betrayal which never would have been contemplated in the days when the monarchs were in charge and on which the populations of most countries have never been allowed to vote. This irony, as well as the EU’s attempt to crush Austria’s Freedom Party (while the continent’s Communist parties, unapologetic heirs of history's bloodiest ideology, are uncriticized), suggests that democracy tends to produce leaders who do not actually believe in democracy, defeating its own allegedly noble purposes.
The elected leaders of both Britain and America are currently planning to launch an aggressive war against a country which has never attacked them, disproving the notion that democracies do not initiate war. The case for an invasion of Iraq is no stronger than those for wars launched by kings in the past, and I do not see how the fact that the decisionmakers have been elected will make life any easier for the unfortunate inhabitants of the intended target.
Aside from these contentious issues (which I realize are debatable), it is hard to see how the 20th century’s politicians, who twice led Europe into wars which made the dynastic conflicts of old look like skirmishes by comparison, have surpassed the pre-modern hereditary monarchs in skill and wisdom. Life is certainly better in many ways. But I believe most economists would agree that today’s higher living standards are the result of technological and medical advances, and may even have occurred in spite (rather than because) of the actions of elected governments. The welfare state—the democrats’ major project—appeared to work wonders for Western Europeans for awhile, but now is facing major problems due to falling birth rates and other factors which have brought into question the credibility and popularity of the social democratic philosophy.
Stepping back from current events and into the realm of theory, I believe that certain qualities inherent in monarchy and democracy give the former advantages over the latter. First, a king is trained for the job from birth. He generally has many years to prepare for the task of governing his country, and when he comes to the throne can concentrate entirely on putting this knowledge to use. He will typically have had access to the best minds and most learned constitutional authorities in the country. In contrast, politicians spend the first part of their careers acquiring power and, once in office, must devote a considerable amount of time to keeping it. The constant need to curry favor with special interest groups does not necessarily coincide with what is good for the country. A king can act according to his conscience; a president must always worry about what the polls and commentators say. Too often it is assumed that the current agenda of a majority of politicians is identical to the “will of the people,” and that a constitutional monarch best serves his or her subjects by automatically assenting to whatever is approved by the government. Unfortunately for liberty, the possibility that it might be desirable for the sovereign to act as a real check on the powers of the government is never even considered.
The fact is that there is not and has never been any such thing as “the people,” only many individual people with as many different ideas about what is to be done. I cannot think of any proposition on which all people of any country have ever agreed. For a particular idea to gain the support of a majority in no way proves its superiority to the view of the minority. So the very idea that elected governments inherently serve the interests of “the people” and hereditary governments do not makes no sense, because the interests of “the people” are never a coherent agenda. What is good for some of a nation’s people will be bad for others. Therefore, no government has ever served “the people” and none ever will, so this allegedly superior aspect of democratic government is meaningless.
The universal worship of democracy in the Western world has brought about a mentality suggesting that winning an election confers some sort of almost magical legitimacy upon a person, giving him a special moral authority that no one who is not elected can possess (hence the outcry over Prince Charles’s letters). I believe this belief is unjustified. First of all, winners of elections are never truly the choice of all or even most of the people; they are merely the choice (and often a reluctant, “lesser-evil” sort of choice) of a majority or plurality of those who happened to show up at the polls that day.
Even assuming that elections genuinely represent the wishes of a majority of a country’s population, one should consider whether the typical path to power of a president is really morally superior to that of a king. Politicians, even the relatively honest ones, are obliged to engage in a relentless pursuit of funds and to frequently make promises to voters. Conflicts of interest are inevitable; campaign pledges are likely to prove impossible or contradictory and consequently may be broken—the whole system invites corruption. The successful politician, especially if he is not independently wealthy, must be a smooth talker and a frequent compromiser and deal-maker, willing to sacrifice principles for politics. He must be willing to step on others to get ahead, constantly attacking his rivals. If a politician is not dishonest or mean-spirited at the beginning of his career, he runs the risk of becoming so as he immerses himself in the real world of politics. The hereditary sovereign is free from all of this. The fact that he did not have to do anything good to earn his position also means that he did not have to do anything bad. Some kings may not be admirable anyway. But while monarchy offers at least a chance that a decent and well-meaning person will achieve the top post, democracy virtually insures such a person will not.
Once a law of succession has been firmly established, monarchy provides government with an invaluable stability and also a certain fairness. When the hereditary principle is unchallenged, no one outside the monarch’s immediate family, no matter how rich or powerful, can hope to be king. Everyone is in that sense equal under the throne. However, republics create divisiveness and uncertainty by encouraging prominent citizens to aim for the presidency. It is difficult to see how this system is more “just” than monarchy, since in practice the office of president tends to be restricted to middle-aged males who have the right connections, are skilled at campaigning and fundraising (which does not imply skill at running a country), and have names that are easy to pronounce and remember.
Monarchs have often been criticized for spending large amounts of money on projects which did not appear to benefit the general public, typically constructing opulent palaces for their comfort and lavishly funding the arts for their entertainment. Yet aside from the fact that this royal "extravagance" provided jobs for generations of architects, artisans, musicians, dancers, and artists, what have been its long-term consequences? Some of the most beautiful buildings ever built (many of which are now open to the public, even in surviving monarchies), much of the greatest music ever written, incomparable art treasures, magnificent dance traditions—the unparalleled enrichment of Europe and the world's cultural heritage must rank as one of monarchy's greatest achievements. Even when the arts were not directly linked with royal patronage, it seems to me that by favoring excellence over equality, monarchy tends to foster an atmosphere which is more conducive than republicanism to high artistic achievement.
The superiority of democracy may be unchallenged by most contemporary Westerners, but it is not accepted by all. One persuasive critic is German-American economist Hans-Hermann Hoppe, author of the recent Democracy—The God That Failed. In this book Hoppe presents an economic and political analysis from a libertarian viewpoint of “monarchy, democracy, and natural order,” concluding that while it would be better not to have a state at all, if one must have a state, monarchy is preferable to democracy, and the historical tendency to replace kings with presidents must be regarded as a negative development. Hoppe makes it clear that he is not a monarchist, but I think his book contains much of value for those of us who are and should be read by everyone interested in monarchism. To adequately summarize this important book here would be far beyond the scope of this essay (see reviews by Jared Taylor and Thomas Woods), but I will highlight some of his points which especially impressed me.
Hoppe explains how one of the disadvantages of democracy is that it persuades the people that their interests and those of the government are identical, making them far more complacent and accepting of government abuses of power. This is particularly applicable to war. When kings waged wars, the aims were always clear and limited, usually involving disputes over inheritance and land. (The Protestant Reformation added a vicious religious dimension to European warfare, but Catholic/Protestant hostilities burned themselves out after about 150 years, and Europe returned to more prosaic excuses for war.) There was no pretense that war would benefit everyone or serve “humanitarian” interests. There were no standing armies and no conscription; kings were obliged to recruit soldiers and regard their lives as valuable. In contrast, one of the most disastrous effects of the transition from monarchy to democracy has been the development of ideological or “total” war. The United States under Woodrow Wilson entered World War I not because Germany or Austria threatened the security of the U.S., but to “make the world safe for democracy.” Ever since then, up to the “humanitarian” bombing of Yugoslavia and the current war on terrorism and the “Axis of Evil,” democratic governments have recklessly broadened the aims of and rationalizations for warfare, resulting in conflicts of far greater destruction. Under the influence of the myth that the interests of democratic government are necessarily theirs, Western populations put up little resistance and succumb to war fever. The wars waged by democracies have turned out to “make the world safe” for nothing but more war.
More central to Hoppe’s book is his theory that monarchical and democratic government are comparable to two ways of managing property, analogous respectively to “private” and “public” ownership. A hereditary monarch “owns” the government and intends to pass it on to his heir. He is therefore likely to think in the long term and will want to increase the value of the state he leaves his successors. On the other hand, a democratic leader is a merely a temporary caretaker, who will be more likely to think in terms of getting the most out of the country at present. In Hoppe’s words, “[i]n contrast to a king, a president will want to maximize not total government wealth (capital values and current income) but current income (regardless and at the expense of capital values).” (24) Therefore, kings are less likely than presidents to misuse the wealth of their country; the hereditary sovereign “will want to avoid exploiting his subjects so heavily...as to reduce his future earnings potential to such an extent that the present value of his estate actually falls.” (47)
Hoppe also explains why the class-consciousness and exclusivity of a monarchical society, so often criticized by democrats, are actually an advantage. Since entry into the top levels of government is restricted to the royal family, the clear distinction between classes promotes a healthy skepticism of state power. However, since democratic government is theoretically open to everyone, in a democracy the line between rulers and ruled is deceptively blurred, and people are less inclined to be vigilant.
In spite of all the above advantages, traditional hereditary monarchy as a form of government has fallen out of favor due to wars and ideological developments which perhaps inevitably accompanied modernization. Kingship is accepted as legitimate by Westerners only when it is purely ceremonial in purpose. “Consequently,” Hoppe concludes, “a return to the ancien régime must be regarded as impossible.” (71) I am reluctantly inclined to agree with him, as I do not see how the necessary monumental change in public opinion could be accomplished. A movement to restrict or abolish democratic government and restore royal power would probably be a waste of time. However, I am convinced that what can and must be defended is the proposition that what today’s constitutional monarchs represent is worth celebrating, and that the history of their non-democratic ancestors is nothing to be ashamed of. As long as constitutional monarchies survive, they serve as an elegant tribute to the vanished but valuable heritage of traditional monarchy.
September 26-28, 2002