« In Praise of Prince Charles | Main | When's The Movie? »

April 26, 2007

Are We Better Than A Monarchy?

In comments to the Prince Charles post below, Glenn writes:

Yes, by all means, let's celebrate [Charles]. He has only spent his life idly sucking at the public teat while helping to perpetuate an utterly indefensible system for picking the head of state (not to mention male-preference primogeniture) that most modern states threw overboard centures ago. Splendid chap.

To this, BB responds:

Wait, are you opposing monarchy to our own political regime where:
a. the stronger of the two parties is outright owned and operated by the Bush family.
b. the weaker of the two parties has a strong propensity to be owned and operated by the Clinton family.
c. many of the leaders of the weaker party are products of the 40 year old Burton-Brown machine (Pelosi, Feinstein, Boxer)?
d. Senate and congressional seats are often bequeathed to family members?
e. Families like the Kochs, the Ahmansons, the Mellons, the Waltons and so on are known to regularly and reliably outright buy government decisions?

What say the rest of you?

April 26, 2007 | Permalink


Obviously, BB is a filthy royalist. Who hates freedom.

More seriously, even if I didn't think that argument overstated the dynastic tendencies of American politics, they're still surely less so than outright monarchy. And regardless of how they got to their leadership positions, his trio of Californian women have to keep winning elections back home to keep them.

Posted by: Trevor Austin | Apr 26, 2007 4:20:13 PM

In tangential response to Glenn, I ask this question: what, exactly, has Charles done to perpetuate the monarchy? Other than, you know, be born.

If he abdicated, wouldn't they just find someone else? It's a weird thing, but his being in line to be the monarch doesn't perpetuate the monarchy; the monarchy perpetuates the monarchy.

He could be out making speeches against it, it's true, but it seems to me that a far better use of his time and energy would be to become even more vocal in his devotion to sustainable and natural agriculture. Surely the long-term good done if everyone got on board with that would be far superior to the long-term good of eliminating the Royal Family's allowance. He's been given -- like actors -- this incredible public platform from which to do some good. If he does so, then good on'im!

If he doesn't, endless piles of scorn, of course.

Posted by: jhupp | Apr 26, 2007 4:23:27 PM

What jhupp said. If we want to mock someone for the perpetuation of a wasteful, symbolically anti-democratic institution, it's the British people and/or government, not the monarchs themelves. They're just doing their thing; the British keep employing them to do it.

Posted by: djw | Apr 26, 2007 4:36:13 PM

To quote ThymeZone or whatever he calls himself these days, don't troll your own blog.

But, okay, I'll bite. If Cranky's assessment of the relationship between the dynasty and the government is correct (the public funding they get is "primarily for historical preservation of buildings, grounds, crowns, etc, and for official state functions - they actually live from the investment proceeds on their $2 billion or so family fortune"), then there is practically no difference between the current members of the house of Windsor and many other families with inherited wealth. On the other hand, bob's description of the benefits of separating head of state and head of government sounds appealing, but I don't see any reason to think it would have worked so well in recent American history, or for that matter, any other time or place. Specifically, lots of people have had the power he's talking about. Did any of them really "almost never use it"?

America is obviously much more democratic than the House of Saud or other real monarchies. I think it could and should be more meritocratic and democratic and less oligarchic than it is. But considering how little power England's royalty has, and considering how England is, by global standards, pretty non-tyrannical and non-stratified, the question of whether they're better off than us just doesn't seem that interesting to me. Sorry.

"Democracy is the worst form of government in the world, except for all the other forms of government that have been tried from time to time." That seems relevant for some reason. It sounds like the sort of thing Mark Twain would have said, but then again, maybe I read it in a Heinlein novel, I don't remember.

Posted by: Cyrus | Apr 26, 2007 4:37:18 PM

"not to mention male-preference primogeniture"
That's right! Screw those bastards who've never had a female monarch or head of state!

Posted by: SP | Apr 26, 2007 4:37:23 PM

Yeah, I read that comment thread and thought "they're both pretty silly." England gets by as a democracy with a monarch just fine. And holding Charles responsible for the tumultuous history that led to Britains quirky structure doesn't seem quite fair. The U.S., though perhaps not the most smoothly run democracy in the world, is no dictatorship, and neither Chelsea nor Jeb will ever run this country.

And I wonder if Charles is friends with Michael Pollan. The Omnivore's Dilemma the most gripping chapter on grass and dirt that I've ever read.

Posted by: Sam L. | Apr 26, 2007 4:46:46 PM

Cyrus, its a quote from Winston Churchill.

Posted by: Rich C | Apr 26, 2007 4:48:38 PM

I believe the term is "Schumpeterian Democracy": rule by competing coalitions of the political & financial elite. But it has more or less always been this way in the US (See Adams, John, John Quincy, and Henry; Harrison, William Henry and Benjamin). There are occasional interruptions at the Presidential level (Jackson, Lincoln, Reagan, Clinton), but even those interruptions to the existing ruling class tend to come from the relatively elite. There are very few interruptions at the House/Senate level ... maybe the Populist movement or during the depression, but I'm not enough of a student of history to know how true that is (or isn't).

The ability of "regular folk" to force the elite to work for their interest, at least as represented by unions, civil rights groups, etc., has gone up and down over time. Obviously it's lower now than it was in the middle of the 20th Century.

But Schumpeterian Democracy is not inherently evil; elites might believe that the best way to retain power is to deliver broad benefits to the public. And if unions etc. have a sufficient voice at the table and fairly represent their members, it's not really a problem at all.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Apr 26, 2007 4:58:30 PM

Ever since the royal family in the UK drew more money in through tourism than they cost, having them at all seems to be a mute point. There role is largely ceremonial, yes they get to live in big houses and have funny jobs but so what? They cause no harm and can sometimes (like Charles) be spokespeople for good causes.

Posted by: TDE | Apr 26, 2007 5:03:23 PM

The question entreats us to grade cow-chips. I see some room for a possible third way here, neither outright monarchy, nor nepitocracy.

Posted by: RW | Apr 26, 2007 5:06:12 PM

he dabbles in organic gardening and he likes architecture...a man for all seasons.

Posted by: della Rovere | Apr 26, 2007 5:07:10 PM

Sorry to be so late to rejoining the fray...actually had work to do. Gets in the way of commenting (it sucks). Anyway...just a couple of points. First, the idea that there's no difference between a system which by law requires the next head of state to be chosen solely on the basis of who's the first-born male heir, on the one hand, and a system in which political succession is open to anyone who can muster the support but does not completely eradicate the advantages of familiar privilege and wealth, on the other, is rather absurd, isn't it? And BB's statement about the dynastic tendencies of our system is really quite exaggerated, in my view.

Second, I have neither said that our system was perfect, nor that the UK is some dismal feudal society. Of course, the UK gets along just fine. It happens to have an aspect of its governance that is a medieval throwback, and Charles -- the subject in question -- benefits from and perpetuates that aspect, which I find reprehensible. But it doesn't mean the UK is to be shunned, of course.

As to my point about primogeniture, yes, Betty is the Queen; never said otherwise. But if she had had a brother, even a younger one, she would not be. Can you really defend that, even if you're a monarchist?

Finally...I happen to think that if Charles spoke out and said that he really thought it was time to end the monarchy, you betcha that would have a huge impact on the issue in Britain. Would it necessarily lead to the replacement of the monarchy? No. But I cannot believe it would not fundamentally transform the debate in the UK. That he does not do so, is in my view, actively participating in perpetuating this retrograde institution, and for his own personal comfort and benefit. That, to me, is not something to be cherished.

Posted by: Glenn | Apr 26, 2007 5:13:31 PM

There's a case to be made that folks like Charlie are victims of a system that thrusts fame and duties upon them, giving them no chance whatever to find their own lives. True, they are well-compensated, but it's always worth asking how much money you would require before it became okay to have your phone conversations with your lover tapped, taped, transcribed, and splashed all over the tabloids.

The real backers of a monarchy are the courtiers and functionaries, who acheive both wealth and status merely by proximity to the throne, yet can cash out at any time and rejoin anonymity, should they so desire. Alternately, they can publish scandal soaked memoirs and claim to possess secrets that they may well not possess, again all at the expense of the Royals.

The same is true for the immensely wealthy in this country, of course, who are, in Ashley Montague's phrase, "The victors who are owned by the spoils." The heirs of great wealth are sequestered and shielded, from fear of such things as kidnapping, imposter's syndrome, or the seemingly inevitable spiral into alcohol and drug abuse that comes when one can afford scotch by the case (James Thurber, there) or cocaine by the kilo.

Which is why we must strive to strip wealth of its heritability. We must do it for the children, as they are, after all, the hope of the future.

Posted by: James Killus | Apr 26, 2007 5:14:24 PM

I will be curious to see if anyone asks Hillary Clinton the dynasty question, either tonight or in any of the debates. And if so how she responds. With Jeb Bush waiting in the wings for 2012 I am more concerned about it than many here seem to be.


Posted by: Cranky Observer | Apr 26, 2007 5:17:02 PM

"...but I don't see any reason to think it would have worked so well in recent American history, or for that matter, any other time or place."

I don't know how the monarchy actually works in England, if it does work. The Constitution is in a way, our King...and looking kinda sick and ineffective right now. You could go thru the archives at Balkinization;they have been looking at ideas for improving our system. "Votes of Confidence"...stuff like that.

I have just a little illiberalism, or maybe a more refined liberalism. I want just a small real, not symbolic, power above the people and the Law/Constitution. Maybe ex-Presidents in unanimity having a veto. Something to slow things down. Something to force, and I do mean force, compromise and comity.

But heck, I dislike that change of the role of Vice-President from the first conception. I would like John Kerry to be VP and President of the Senate. "The Senate makes its own rules" but in the interest of anti-majoritarianism, I suspect that position would have accrued great power over the years.

Can you imagine Al Gore/John Kerry with Committee Assignment Power and determining what bills come to the Floor? What a difference over the last seven years.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Apr 26, 2007 5:17:28 PM

I've got a lot of respect for a knee-jerk opposition to outright monarchy. The idea that some people are born with a right to rule over the rest of us is, on its face, really unappealing and profoundly undemocratic. I mean really, I should give a damn what this guy thinks about organic farming simply because he emerged from Elizabeth's vah-jay-jay? Ridiculous.

BB raises the question of whether the American system, without a monarchy, cuts down on nepotism. Seems like an empirical question on a certain level, right? How many ruling families and political machines are there in England's house of commons (the House of Lords has no power, so we ignore them, right? Because, uh, if they have any power, BB's argument is basically dead in the water). I honestly don't know, b/c I don't follow British politics except to yell "OH, SNAP!" during question hour when it's on C-SPAN.

Seems to me that the concentration of money and political power in oligarchic families tends to be the natural tendency human society. Whether a powerless hereditary monarchy exacerbates or mitigates that better than an American-style representative democracy is something we can look at empirically, right?

And also, while those examples are right, it's not like new members can't join the club. Look at good 'ol Harry Reid. And frankly, it's a little weird to suggest the Clintons are a dynasty on par with the Bushes. Bill (and Hillary for that matter) wasn't exactly descended from landed gentry. In fact, DeLay & Gingrich wasn't from anybody important. Neither is Obama, Edwards, Giuliani (McCain married money, so I suppose we should rule him out). Even Tip O'Neill--yeah, his dad was in government, but he was a city councilman in Cambridge, MA. Same for LBJ, Sam Brayburn, and lots of others, I'm sure.

Not to say there aren't families--but it's more that there are machines and interests. It is hereditary in that sense, but in a certain way it's nothing that better inheritance laws couldn't significantly mitigate.

Posted by: anonymous | Apr 26, 2007 5:30:10 PM

I mean really, I should give a damn what this guy thinks about organic farming simply because he emerged from Elizabeth's vah-jay-jay?

Heh... while I might take some exception to my opposition being labeled "knee-jerk" -- I'd like to think I thought about it for at least a second or two -- this quote by anon really does sum it up far better than I did.

Posted by: Glenn | Apr 26, 2007 5:36:43 PM

RM Unger has perhaps the sharpest answer:

"In a world of democracies, the most deserving basis of national differences is that the different states of the world should represent a form of moral specialisation within humanity. Humanity can develop its powers and possibilities only by developing them in different directions."


The upshot, I think, is that for the love of all that is holy, our role in the common human struggle to deepen the pluralism of human social forms compels us, with all of our hearts, not to act like the British.

Posted by: RW | Apr 26, 2007 5:50:06 PM

I'm a 'more democracy' person - who also thinks both our US and British (unwritten, but real) constitutions have major flaws. I like the idea of a separation of head of state from head of government, but a inherited monarchy with male primogeniture is way out of date. I like an elected head of state and an elected head of government, but that is very unlikely to happen here or in Britain.

But clearly the US Presidency has been shown to have the upper hand (is not co-equal with Congress), and I'd favor measures to reduce the imbalance - like a Congressional override of a veto with just a majority in both houses on the second go-around. And elimination of filibusters in the Senate that require 60 votes to overcome. The Attorney General should not be a presidential appointment but should be elected by the people in a popular vote (no electoral college), or perhaps, chosen by the Congress.

But overall, more on the subject of the UK monarchy, it seems like a harmless, quaint way of doing things (except for the male preference on succession). Many european countries (especially in the nordic countries) have a monarch and are quite democratic. And they seem to like it the way it is.

As for Prince Charles: he's OK, but shouldn't succeed to the throne, but should pass it to his son (what a hunk!). I think his mama knows that too (LOL).

Oh, I'd also favor a single six year term for US President - so they didn't spend the first 4 years just getting ready to be re-elected. Six years is enough to get things done, and the last two years of doubled-termed presidents seems to be wasted anyway.

The real question is what the US will do when Bush claims the right to stay in office 'until the crisis is over' (like Rudy wanted to do in NYC). That sounds like an overblown fear, but it may be coming to a country real near us soon. He has demonstrated that the laws and constitution don't apply to him, so exactly how would his god-granted authority be overcome? By the military? By the SCOTUS - how many brigades do they have? Congress would sputter, and maybe even impeach (but I doubt the Senate would vote 2/3 to do so with GOP loyalty trumping oaths of office).

We may have our own monarchy quicker than we think.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Apr 26, 2007 5:54:53 PM

"And BB's statement about the dynastic tendencies of our system is really quite exaggerated, in my view."

Well, this is precisely where we disagree. A lot of democracies (for example, the medieval city-states) generally had as their last phase a period where they were theoretically democracies, but, in fact, the elites had, by modifying many laws just slightly, gained total control over the state. In general, this happened when the elites financialized - i.e. when they became bankers, rather than producers of products. Producers of products always have a large workforce, who can democratize the state by force (and you can't kick them out of the city en-mass because you need workers). Bankers, of course, don't need sweaty laborers.

"even if I didn't think that argument overstated the dynastic tendencies of American politics, they're still surely less so than outright monarchy"

But there is surely a possibility of oligarchy in America (probabilities are a matter of opinion). Is it better to already have a monarchy, where you know what you're up against, or an oligarchy that pretends to be a democracy?

There is also other advantages:
1. an American oligarchy will be primarily composed of "those who have the most cash". But much of what they did to get that cash, their characters, their intentions and opinions are totally opaque. (for example, the Ahmansons are entirely unknown by the population). We can far more easily judge the character of a King. At the minimum, we can say that he is King because of his family's great deeds in the past and immense services to the people. Of course, kings usually propagandize on how their families saved the nation - but at least we can easily see this propaganda and analyze it.
2. At least a king propagandizes that he has office because of his virtue, or his family's virtue, or the support of the gods (preferably all three). A American oligarchy will simply be based on cash. I'd rather have my state at least propagandize about virtue, courage, generosity and so on, rather than based on "who got the highest alpha this past quarter?".
3. A monarch is unlikely to loot the state's treasury and simply flee - he's not a monarch in other nations. It happens, of course, but not very often. This conversely happens often in oligarchies - say, the Kochs and the Taubmans gain control, loot the treasury and flee to the Virgin Islands. What would they lose by this? Their power came from having a great deal of money, and now they have much more. True, they may not be able to return to the US, but that might prove to be a minor factor.

More simply put, there are advantages to a ruler motivated by the longterm gain of glory or honor versus one motivated by money.

Posted by: burritoboy | Apr 26, 2007 5:59:55 PM

More on the Bush Monarchy: Just imagine Babs as the Queen Mother!

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Apr 26, 2007 6:00:26 PM

burritoboy has either hit the target or come close enough (this is horseshoes, you know).

Power is now like a automatic weapon: it comes with a seemingly endless supply of ammo (cash).

So, I'll add to my reform list a more confiscatory income tax for the wealthy, an estate tax that is punitive (make them give away the money like Carnegie did), and rigid limits on election contributions.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Apr 26, 2007 6:07:36 PM

"...so exactly how would his god-granted authority be overcome? By the military?"

I hope so. There has been a lot of talk around the blogosphere recently about mutiny and coups in the "Not once, not even a little, foot in the door, precedent, it would all be over."

No it wouldn't. Generals and Colonels ain't all that different than the rest of us. Hell, that it hasn't happened yet, under Bush, relieves any fear that if it happened, it would be disastrous. I think it would be great.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Apr 26, 2007 6:13:10 PM

I yesterday posted at Angry Bear that I thought Presidential Elections have been, nearly permamently, rigged by Republicans. Bush will retire in '08, and McCain or one of the others will take care of him and the interests he represents. Maybe HRC is acceptable and useful. Edwards or Obama...never.

I think the Democratic and Media Elite know this, but have decided that Republican Presidents are better than Civil War. Their freaking liberalism and love of Law get in the way.

Sometimes Politics is done best in the streets with baseball bats and lots of liquor.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Apr 26, 2007 6:19:15 PM

All of this misses the point. The point is not what the Royal Family is; the point is what the Prime Minister is not.

Here in the US the President is the Head of State, and so we have all sorts of bullshit about the respect we have to pay him because to disrespect the President is to disrespect America. In the UK the head of government is just a minister of the Crown. He's no big deal. You can disrespect him all you want as long as you are loyal to the Queen.

By disentangling government and state the British avoid the ridiculous and antidemocratic reverence we give to the presidency. The benefit of the separation of state and government is worth putting up with a few upper-crust silly-walking twits.

Posted by: bloix | Apr 26, 2007 6:22:44 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.