Dynasty envy

Monarchy is a completely nonsensical form of government. Making someone the leader of your country because one of their immediate relatives was leader of your country is blatant nepotism, and history is full of examples where it produced rulers who had no business being in charge of anything.

I mention this because apparently Queen Elizabeth has been Queen Elizabeth for a really long time, which serves as a news peg for Vox’s Dylan Matthews to make the argument that monarchy is actually great.

The genius of the argument is that it not only acknowledges that monarchy is a blatantly ridiculous institution, but presents that as a strength:

Monarchs are more effective than presidents precisely because they lack any semblance of legitimacy. It would be offensive for Queen Elizabeth or her representatives in Canada, New Zealand, etc. to meddle in domestic politics. Indeed, when the governor general of Australia did so in 1975 it set off a constitutional crisis that made it clear such behavior would not be tolerated.

It’s a really clever idea. Annoyingly clever, because it’s also seriously flawed.

First of all, the argument is incredibly Eurocentric. The constitutional monarchs in Morocco and Jordan exercise plenty of power, and get tolerated well enough.

Second, there’s something wrong with that example: the governor-general of Australia is officially appointed by the queen, in practice the position is filled by the prime minister of Australia. The last British monarch who tried to overrule the prime minister’s choice was George V in 1930, and that nearly set off a constitutional crisis.

So practically speaking, there’s virtually no difference between the chief executive of a dominion like Australia or Canada and a parliamentary republic like South Africa. The difference is one of perception, and it exists because monarchy has thousands of years of iconography and romanticism behind it, thanks to its status as the default method of rule for most of recorded history.

And the reason why monarchy had so much staying power was the exact opposite of the argument for constitutional monarchy now: Strong, hierarchical leadership was the most effective way to run a large country, especially in the days before mass communication and widespread literacy. It was the embodiment of the idea that people neither deserved nor were competent enough to govern themselves.

England’s constitutional monarchy emerged after no small amount of strife, including a whole civil war. Things have gone considerably more smoothly in the last century or two, but that mainly serves as evidence that the apparent advantages of constitutional monarchy are a relatively recent development.

Also, talking about the virtues of monarchy in the abstract ignores the fact that it’s a system of government that succeeds or fails based on who the monarch is. Oh, and since the monarch is hereditary (their democratic illegitimacy depends on this, so it’s a feature not a bug), you have no constitutional means of controlling who the monarch is. This can even help skew the data to make monarchies look artificially good, since the monarchies that got unpopular monarchs tend not to be monarchies anymore.

The real lesson is that politics are a product of norms as much as institutions, and norms change over time. The existing division of power between Congress and the president causes plenty of problems in American government, but simply deleting Article II of the constitution and adding a king instead would probably make things worse in the short term. In the long term, I’m going to prefer a system of government that actually makes sense.

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