Does monarchy help?

I’ve written a bit from time to time about presidential versus parliamentary systems, and about direct versus indirect presidential elections. No system is perfect, but my view is that a parliamentary system with an indirectly elected president tends to do a better job than the available alternatives.

This week at the Conversation, however, Dennis Altman advances what he calls the “radical thought” that constitutional monarchy may be a better bet for preserving liberal democracy:

It is tempting to dismiss the whole concept of monarchy as an absurd and offensive relic of feudalism, and the panoply that surrounds monarchy is indeed ludicrous. …

But, on balance, those countries that have developed constitutional monarchies rank among the most democratic and egalitarian: the Scandinavian and Benelux states all have hereditary heads of state.

Altman’s progressive credentials are impeccable, but his is by no means an isolated view. As democracy seems more and more embattled, much of the usual criticism of monarchy has gone quiet.

At the beginning of this year, the New York Times reported on a study (since published in the journal Social Forces) that found, according to its authors, “strong evidence that monarchies contribute to a greater protection of property rights and higher standards of living through each of the three theoretical mechanisms compared to all republics.”

There’s no doubt that the monarchies of north-western Europe are a generally successful lot. But the claim that monarchy is the key variable strikes me as a bit shaky. For example, trying to compare like with like as much as possible, think about the following pairs – in each case, monarchy then republic:

  • Spain vs Portugal
  • Sweden vs Finland
  • Norway vs Iceland
  • Japan vs South Korea
  • Netherlands vs Germany
  • United Kingdom vs Ireland
  • Jamaica vs Trinidad & Tobago
  • Belize vs Guyana

It’s hard to see much advantage either way there; the republics are at least holding their own. By contrast, there are cases in the developing world where monarchy does look to have an advantage:

  • Jordan vs Syria
  • Thailand vs Burma/Myanmar
  • Oman vs Yemen
  • Morocco vs Algeria

And there are many areas where democracy is under a degree of stress – central Europe, the Balkans, South Asia*, West Africa – where there just aren’t any monarchies to make the comparison.

Now, that might mean that monarchy would do better in those places if it was tried. But it might also mean that where conditions are more difficult, monarchies are less likely to survive in the first place. In other words, there’s a selection effect going on: the only monarchies in our comparison set are the ones with favorable circumstances or other advantages to help them survive. The ones that didn’t are no longer there to study.

So the fact that existing monarchies have a pretty good record is not much use to a country that is thinking about establishing one. Might it caution, however, against getting rid of monarchy where it currently exists – such as in Australia?

I think a certain amount of caution about changing constitutional arrangements is always warranted. And any discussion about actually making such a change here quickly runs into other issues, both practical and symbolic, that are quite separate from the basic question of monarchy versus republic.

For example, one of the chief motivating factors for republicans in Australia seems to be the fact that our head of state is a foreigner. But we don’t need a republic to solve that; if we wanted to, we could create our own home-grown monarchy. (Or, conversely, we could elect a foreigner as president.)

Britain, and therefore Australia, have had a good run of luck recently with monarchs. Nonetheless, it remains true that in the long run hereditary succession is not a good way to produce able or conscientious rulers. A short reading course in the history of monarchy should be enough to disabuse anyone of that notion.

There are real advantages to monarchy; Altman cites Bagehot on “the advantage of separating ‘dignified’ and ‘efficient’ power.” But there are costs too, even when it is functioning well: the symbolic affront that it gives to democracy, and the implicit endorsement of artificial hierarchies, send a message that the world can do without.

I agree that we could do a lot worse than our existing system, and changing it would not be one of my top priorities. There are other things we should be doing to defend democracy. But we shouldn’t delude ourselves that a hereditary head of state will be much help.


* Strictly speaking there is one monarchy, Bhutan, remaining in South Asia, but it is too small and remote to really compare with anything else in the region.


7 thoughts on “Does monarchy help?

  1. Charles, appreciated your choice of topic and presentation. Helpful. I also appreciate our current world and national circumstance is under constant challenge; unpredictable, unstable, both threatening and/or stimulating. I also acknowledge some wisdom in the old adage “If it ain’t broke; don’t fix it.” And let’s be clear, your “No system is perfect . . . .” provides an essential reminder when beset by politicians and opaque vested interest groups.
    What then for heaven’s sake might be the outcome should Australia ditch a proven, one step removed monarchial track record, for a potential authoritarian despot. Of which there are now many examples; each of whom vary in their governance style ranging from outright slaughter of their ‘subjects’ all the way through to benign and prosperous societies. Are we just seeking ideological change and bugger the risk ’cause those ‘pushing’ anticipate future rewards? Or, because we genuinely believe we can avoid a Duterte or Trump; and therefore secure for our nation a ‘significant governance upgrade’ presumed unlikely to occur under present association with the existing, and future, one step removed, monarchial regime?
    I am not opposed to a republic . . . just cannot see quantitative improvement.


  2. excellent read Charles, hope you can do a follow up on Malaysia re the fascinating Mahathir/Ibrahim combo and how they overcame against all odds. Crikey should give you more of a run on the main newsletter.


  3. I too read Altman but was disappointed by his rather lame and very unconvincing line of reasoning. I don’t think many of these comparisons are especially informative and certainly hardly any are comparing like-with-like. He cited Don Watson: “In a world filling with tyrants, Queen Elizabeth and her descendants represent a sort of anti-tyranny.”

    My response to that is not really printable. But with my like-by-like comparison of having lived ten years each in France and the UK (with outsider eyes on both, and if anything, an Anglo’s innate bias against the French) I came to loathe the UK system. The several decades elapsed since then has only confirmed everything I though about the UK. France got Macron with a total shakeup of the established order while the UK got Brexit, May and Corbyn (after getting messed up by Thatcher, Blair and Cameron–no accident that all are the product of Oxford, where it happens is I spent 6 of my tens years).
    Some will say I am being melodramatic but the UK is subject to one of the worst, if not much discussed, tyrannies: that of class and implicit deference and hierarchy. The monarch sits at the apex of this toxic pyramid (including the church!), and an enduring symbol of supreme un-earned and hereditary privilege. The current monarch may be relatively innocuous but is still representative of this system.
    A long time ago I used to accept the argument that the UK monarchy paid for itself many times over via the tourism premium, but then realised that if it was deposed and all those royal palaces and vast land holdings were turned over to the state it might earn even more for the people: the way France gets 85m tourists and you can actually visit the heart of the old royal residences like Versailles or Chambord etc, or they are converted to something more useful, such as the Louvre, Orangerie etc. (There’s a serious thought for all economic-rationalists: a monarchy might be worth more dead than alive, to the economy!)

    As to “monarchies contribute to a greater protection of property rights”, might that not be part of the problem? Seriously. Our obsession with property and property speculation in the Anglosphere is a significant root of the problem. Labor, whether Keating two decades ago or the current lot today, attempts to reverse the absurd tax privilege of the property-owning classes in such a ridiculous struggle when it is self-evident. In France there is CGT even on your principal private residence but it reduces to zero over a period of about 15 years occupation. Anything beyond a second property will be taxed until the pips squeek–as it rightly should unless you really want to see the UK system of vast land-based inherited estates or the toxic situation of one of their richest, Lord Grosvenor (a young punk who just managed to inherit the whole $20 billion package without apparently losing a dime to HM treasury) who owns the freehold of all of Mayfair (including the US embassy which he “gave” to them on peppercorn rent; his son has just recovered this amazing bit of real estate as the US move out of the centre to some ridiculous fortress).

    Comparisons with the so-called bicycle-Monarchies of the Nordics (honorary member The Netherlands) is not valid. If those monarchies ever had the same landed privilege of the British, supporting an entire pyramid of privilege, they certainly don’t today. On our interminable squabble over our own republican destiny, I once made a joke flag with the Danish flag replacing the Union Jack: let’s have “our” Danish princess instead of a bunch of hereditary genetically-inbred Brits. In fact the house of Windsor is more German than British so let’s go Danish instead! Incidentally the current “relaxation” by allowing a secondary or tertiary royal (with a very distant, unlikelihood of ascending to the throne) is kind of irrelevant but I suppose it peripherally adds a desperately need bit of hybrid vigour to the house of Windsor. (I’m a geneticist; google it. 🙂

    What does our truly ridiculous bank monopoly with its epic abuses of privilege reflect other than the precedents set by those in the UK (on the international stage, the wooden spoon of dishonour has to go to HSBC, a British creation in Hong Kong but registered and run out of London; they have outdone the Swiss in laundering the mafia, drug-runners, girl-traffickers, third-world dictator’s fortunes). If all major banks, including the French (at the time of the GFC the BNP-Paribas was the world’s biggest bank by assets), are poisoned by the same proclivities, they mostly were forced into copying the pattern set by “AngloSaxon” financial systems, rotten to the very core. IMO, it is this that is the main driver for Brexit because the EU, for all its faults, has realised that modern financial industry practices are not sustainable and have wanted reform for several decades, accelerating in urgency after the GFC; but always thwarted by the British veto in the EU. It is no accident that one of the loudest voices for Brexit is Jacob Rees-Mogg (a perfect case of inherited privilege if ever there was one; father Baron Rees-Mogg of The Times, mother-inlaw Lady Tadgell) with his hedge-fund fortune and notions of lèse-majesté to the little people. His popular moniker, “MP for the 18th century”, is near-perfect. Tony Abbott would love to be his BFF, except, you know, Tone, even if he went to Oxford, is just a bit too non-U, sniff …

    So, it is not the monarchy per se but the nature and historical antecedents of the particular monarchy that matters. Contrary to everything a lot of people, who really should know better, perversely or habitually convince themselves, the British version is not good for anyone, not least Australians and most emphatically not the British. The fact that superficially it doesn’t appear as bad as other rampant forms of autocracy merely makes it more insidiously poisonous to British society and politics. And contrary to the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” concept, it is most definitely broken and, never mind the poms, we Australians need to disengage from the whole toxic package.


  4. Excuse the long rant. And even so I managed to omit something I think could be important. It may be that a Constitutional Monarchy adds a level of stability to the system. But of course as any geneticist like me, especially an evolutionary geneticist (which I am not), would say, as Darwin is reputed to have said:

    It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.

    It certainly seems that the polity in the Anglosphere desperately needs change but seems to be almost fantastically resistant to it. Conservatives think this is good. But Darwinian science says otherwise. (May be why some of those ultra-conservatives are in such denial about Darwinism!). As has been pointed out, the American system while cherry-picking what they thought they needed from the Westminster system, actually was carefully designed by a bunch of elite white men to maintain the stability required by the same, for the good of the nation and most certainly themselves and their ilk.

    Stability of this sort, merely keeps delaying or deflecting the forces for change. Like in an earthquake zone, it is better to dissipate the energy in a whole series of smaller movements spread over time. Without that dissipation, the only alternative will one day be an explosion of such energy that it will be immensely destructive and uncontrollable.


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