Yes, I know, we live in a republic with democratically elected representatives and a democratically elected president, all as ordered by the U.S. Constitution. And the system has worked fairly well for the past 230 years—barring one outright civil war and a number of scandals approaching the level of a coup. This is pretty much as Winston Churchill said: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
In its ideal form, as we were taught in school sixty-odd years ago, democracy lets the best and brightest in the population step forward as selfless public servants who want to make the best decisions and to seek and determine the greatest good for the greatest number. And I have no doubt that some people are drawn into the public sector for this very reason.
In a slightly more cynical view—one to which I adhere from time to time—democratic elections and government positions invite people who want to make their living by telling other people what they should and should not, can and cannot—and in the most extreme cases—what they must and may not do. This is a form of busybody that we do not admire anywhere else in our lives, except that every two to four years we hold an election and give such people the keys to the government and power over us.1
And in the most jaundiced view of all—one that I hold in my darkest moments—elected officials and the appointees they add to their staffs and administrative positions are only there because government is where the easy money is: the taxing power to take a larger and larger share of the economy for whatever purposes they think appropriate; and the influential power to grant access, favorable legislation, beneficial findings, and grease through the gears of government, all for a “consideration” that may be immediate and monetary or may represent some other form of value, perhaps indefinitely delayed but surely repaid. This is corruption, of course. This is pigs at the trough. But you can’t say it never happens, or else why would K Street in Washington, DC, be known as the center of and pivot of the revolving door for lobbyists and public advocacy groups? They all want something from government, know their way around government, and are very well paid to get from government what they and their masters want.
From time to time—and especially when the choice of politicians and parties is not between better and best but between mendicant and mendacious fools, who promise anything to get votes, even when they have no intention or the means of paying up—I decide that the electorate has not the power to pick or even to recognize a good leader or an honest man or woman. The system is rigged toward the lowest common denominator, both among voters and candidates, and nothing good will come of it.2
And so, from time to time, I entertain a cautious enthusiasm for the system of monarchy. If we can’t pick a leader from among the ambitious grabbers and wasters who will say anything to get elected, then let’s settle on the one who climbs to the top of the heap through war, subterfuge, or poison and let him—or more rarely her—have the job for life. At least the king or queen in the first generation will be eager enough to give the populace some semblance of good government. That at least will help ensure a long life and stable tenure.
And then, with the prospect of his or her prodigy to follow, the monarch will be induced to think in the long term. That means no stealing the treasury or scouring the land or murdering too many innocents. Such actions would leave the next generation’s prince or princess to inherit a kingdom ripe for overturning. And the reigning monarch will also have an incentive to pass along to that prince or princess whatever principles of good government, of protecting the people and the land, and of trying to ensure their happiness, that he or she has learned in the process of ruling. At least then someone in government will have been born and trained from childhood to think beyond him- or herself, beyond personal desires and privileges, to cherish and support the good of the nation.
Or not. The trouble with hereditary monarchy is that the vigor of the current generation may not be passed along to succeeding generations. Certainly, it didn’t work out all the time for England. There the warrior genius of Henry V passed sovereignty on to the religious simpleton of his infant son Henry VI, and that led to decades of war and subterfuge, the War of the Roses. Then Henry Tudor—the VIIth of royal name—finally emerged from the strife and brought forth two fine sons, Arthur and the future Henry VIII. But the ascendant second son, Henry—after Arthur died young—lacked a legitimate male heir for the longest time, causing more political strife. Neither Henry VIII nor his ministers or the populace counted the rights of mere daughters and so wanted a son to carry on the Tudor name. Everyone else around the throne feared another baronial war if the king eventually died without a legitimate heir. And when the king finally had a sickly son, Edward VI, who was crowned at the age of nine, never prospered, and died sixteen years later, only the daughters were left to rule.3
Such are the problems of a hereditary monarchy. And they eventually led, in England and elsewhere, to a constitutional monarchy. Yes, the king or queen was still head of state and nominally head of the government, but the position is now largely ceremonial and the power merely that of persuasion. The actual decision-making falls to cabinet ministers who, in the parliamentary system, are promoted from the democratically elected legislature to oversee various aspects of government. And one of them, the prime minister, is the effective head of government—so long as he or she keeps winning important votes in parliament. But still, someone in the top level of government has at least been born and trained to think of the good of the country, even if he or she has to work through a system of popularly elected politicians.
Hereditary monarchy relies on tradition and the popular belief in and support of a person and ultimately of a family. It is, for the governed, a matter of respect, obedience, and even love. That is, until a rapacious or imbecilic prince rises to the throne, and everyone is willing to cast the dice in a dynastic war. Representative democracy, even when it operates under the wing of a constitutional monarchy, relies on the tradition of and popular belief in a process: that if the politicians we elect today don’t work for our benefit, we can always toss them out in two or four years’ time (American system), or with a loss of confidence and change of government over some important issue (British system).
You might think that, with the rise of constitutional monarchy, the system of democratically elected representative government has won for all time. But I note that notions of kingship persist in every culture. How many revolutions have passed through their republican phase, of whatever duration, to relapse into the public’s bestowing its respect, obedience—and even love—on a tyrant? The Romans tossed out the seven hereditary kings in 509 BC, maintained a republic through wars of both expansion and civil dissension for almost five hundred years, and finally dissolved into the elevation of a field marshal, or imperator, or emperor (never the hated term “king”) who ruled through his family, his army, and finally through the power of the name “Caesar” alone for almost five hundred years more. The French deposed and guillotined their Bourbon king in 1792, declared a republic that devolved into a Reign of Terror, engaged in wars of egalitarian liberation throughout Europe, and finally named their best general as the new emperor in 1804.
You can avoid the term “king,” and you can try to limit the ruler’s seat on the throne and the claim of dynasty. But once you grant someone supreme power in his or her own name, you are forced to either accept that ruler’s offspring to follow in the job—as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has done with the Kim family—or you risk dynastic wars among the next most powerful barons, senators, generals, or commissars to claim the throne. And that’s usually the bloodier and more disruptive transition. But whether you call the position “first citizen” or “führer,” the effect and function of a monarch are still the same.4
For anyone who thinks that we, in this modern age, are too smart or sophisticated or enlightened to ever go back to giving our respect, obedience, and even our love to a single person raised to the status of king, emperor, first citizen, or führer … look around. There is nothing about a battleship, a jet fighter, or a battle tank that can’t wear the sigil or coat of arms of a royal house. And nothing about a computer or an artificial intelligence that can’t respond to the political power of one man or family, however it may have been obtained and wielded. We are barely half a millennium away from the tribalism that gave England and Europe—not to mention everywhere else in the world—their kings and emperors.
The sword can easily be laid on our necks once again.5
1. And in the meantime, these same elected officials appoint and budget for even more busy people who will run the congressional staffs and the executive branch’s departments and commissions that never need to get publicly elected, are protected by Civil Service laws, and lately have acquired public union protection. This is that “Deep State” you now hear about: a tinkertoy perpetual-motion machine that absorbs taxes and grinds out regulations, subpoenas, hearings, judgments, fines, and punishments—all generally outside the public view, often under a gag order, and without effective recourse by the private parties involved.
2. But as Robert A. Heinlein wrote in Time Enough for Love: “Of course the game is rigged. Don’t let that stop you; if you don’t bet you can’t win.”
3. And don’t get me started on later history, where the long-ruling Victoria married off her princess daughters all over Europe and so spread a recessive gene for hemophilia to more than one royal house and helped bring down the 300-year-old Romanov dynasty in Russia.
4. After all, the word “monarch” derives from the Greek, combining mono, or “one,” with archon, or “ruler.”
5. Or, as Benjamin Franklin replied, when asked whether the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia had brought forth a monarchy or a republic: “A republic, if you can keep it.”