Kings, Queens, and Jokers - Liberal Resistance

Kings, Queens, and Jokers

There’s something to be said for monarchy. Not the kind that entails absolute power as enjoyed by the likes of Louis IV, Henry VIII, or Catherine the Great. I have in mind something rather different, something that bears greater similarity to what the Queen of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth Realms has today, that is, a so-called constitutional monarchy, one with limited powers who “rules” in a democratically elected, representative government, and where the day-to-day affairs of state are managed by the elected office holders. In the case of Great Britain, that would be the Prime Minister, various cabinet members, and their appointees. The Devil is in the details, of course, and there are improvements over the British system that one can envision, but in many ways, this makes much more sense to me than the American structure, albeit, the idea of a written Constitution wherein rights are delineated is something I’d want to keep.

Setting the mechanical principles of governance aside, there are several advantages to monarchy, as silly as the institution might appear to some. There is much to be gained by separating the functions that attend the head of state, a person who is seen to embody the ideals, will, and stature of a country, from the messier business of actually running the government and the process of getting elected, and the unseemly partisanship that accompanies all of it. Thus separated, it allows for someone to handle the matters of state that require dignity and decorum–––something profoundly lacking in the chief executive in today’s America–––and someone who represents the country as a whole, standing above squabbling factions, which is something the Founders and Framers worried about a great deal, and perhaps most notably, George Washington, who eschewed factionalism. Even John Adams, perhaps the single most important, forceful, and articulate advocate for independence prior to the American Revolution, favored having a monarch for reasons such as these. Of course, one doesn’t need a hereditary monarch for such a separation of duties. There are other examples of presidencies that act as head of state for limited periods without being the operational head of government–––for example, in Israel.

With that said, aside from dividing the labor between a head of state and a head of government, there are virtues to a hereditary constitutional monarchy. It provides for continuity of leadership over time, which is important in the sense that people crave a certain sense of permanence and stability, something they can count on every day for the whole of their lives. While it is true that mediocrities will be the order of the day and a clustering around the mean of innate abilities will occur, as is invariably the case in every significant segment of society, there’s evidence to suggest that a first-class education and moral training can produce a sense of duty, reasonable judgment, and common sense even among those with otherwise average minds. In other words, even people possessing the most ordinary of intellects can rise to the role, given the proper tools and motivation. And let’s face it, mediocrities rule the day among elected officials in a democracy, too, whereas, duty and judgment are not always evident in those who are burdened by their ambition, and this stands in juxtaposition with those born into power and reared to manage it. Why, after all, should it surprise anyone that those elected by a majority of their fellow middling folk aren’t any more perspicacious than those who put them there? Still, invoking Lord Acton, the highly corrupting influence of absolute power can affect us all, including superior intellects, making them even more dangerous as history has shown more than once, and that is why the rights and duties of the monarch must be carefully circumscribed.

There is overwhelming evidence that we humans long for heroes to lead us and that we are prone to celebrity worship. Most people–––even the most circumspect among us, including those who imagine themselves to be ruled solely by reason–––have a need to admire and transfer some part of their aspirations to people they consider grander than themselves. Consider how people the world over are fascinated by celebrities in the arts and sports, fawn over prominent intellectuals (yes, even in academia) or business tycoons; or blindly follow charismatic politicians. A monarch can fulfill this need, and perhaps even distract from the dangers of following charismatic, would-be tyrants. In America, there is as much enthrallment with the British monarchy and its trappings as there is among the Brits themselves. A monarch’s family can also provide a useful distraction and entertainment, not without some cost at the public trough, mind you, but within reasonable limits. The benefits of having a head of state and an institution that most people can respect would seem to outweigh the associated and comparatively small financial encumbrances. The British Commonwealth and Japan both provide reasonably attractive and financially manageable examples.

I say all of this only in partial seriousness. I am not proposing monarchy for the United States, which is clearly unfeasible. It is much more likely we will fall into dictatorship with the likes of the current occupant of the White House than what I’m positing here. But, I am not so sure that if they could have known what we know today about all that ensued after 1776, that those Colonists who rebelled against England and King George III would have done the same given the chance. Armed with knowledge of the future, it is conceivable that they would have negotiated a different arrangement with the mother country, one that would have given greater representation and local autonomy. The possibilities are endless: Napoleon might have been defeated much sooner with our assistance; slavery would likely have ended earlier, as it did in Britain (1772) and the Empire (1833); the American Civil War might thereby have been avoided; and, given the overwhelming might of the British Empire, one that included America, the world wars of the 20th century, the Holocaust, and other depredations might never have occurred. There is not a laboratory to test such a thesis, and given the fickle finger of historical fates and unintended consequences, it could well have turned out for the worse for all we know. While Americans are prone to comforting–––and often enough, deluding–––themselves with their self-described “exceptionalism,” there’s considerable hubris in thinking that the rebellious Colonists produced the best of possible outcomes. Quite apart from the special geographic advantages and fecundity that we enjoy, some of the things we single out as great American virtues–––productivity and individualism being among them–––do not seem to have depended upon separation.

It gives one pause to think the Founders might have erred. It must be remembered that historically one man’s patriot is another’s traitor, and one man’s revolutionary is another’s terrorist. The victors are the ones who usually decide the appellation we will use. We prefer to think things turned out for the best, but it cannot be so easily demonstrated when we set aside our grammar school indoctrinations and our primordial tribal sentiments. And then there’s the matter of treason. Consider General Benedict Arnold–––a British citizen who rebelled with his fellow Colonists against the Crown, who undergoes apostasy (with the encouragement of his Tory wife and after becoming aggrieved with his treatment by Congress), who then resumes loyalty to the Crown once again. As a consequence and ever since, in the minds of Americans he’s become the very definition of treason. Did Arnold, an Englishman who fought for England and against those who rebelled against their own country do a greater injustice than, say, a President who cooperates with a foreign power and then lies about it in order to win an election, and who proceeds to denigrate and alter the institutions of his country and coarsen its ethos and enliven hatred and bigotry in the citizenry? It is difficult to argue that the latter is less ignoble than Arnold’s treachery, which, after all, was against those in rebellion, and, at least ultimately, not against his country (one has to imagine the country we now call the United States existed before it did to consider the rebellion anything other treason, whatever its moral merits might have been).

It is easy to poke fun at some of the silliness and pomp surrounding the remaining monarchs in the modern age. But is it any more preposterous than what occurs with the often vacuous personalities celebrated by tens of millions today? I rather think it is less absurd. Unlike the kind of worship directed to celebrities, there is a purpose to having someone embody the values of the nation and someone who is respected by virtue of what she symbolizes, and whose ultimate duty is to serve the nation. This stands in contrast to those to whom no such motive can be ascribed without reservation–––those who aspire to have power over others, or those whose influence is simply due to their having an unusual talent, being extraordinarily good looking, or who have a pile of money. The more I think about it, the more I’ve come to believe that the rest of us jokers might benefit were we the subjects of kings and queens born into their role and groomed for obligation and service, rather than being fawning supplicants of pop stars, moguls of commerce living large, and blow-dried politicians. It is good I have no political aspirations, as I’d be accused of trying to establish a monarchy and becoming king! Alas, no, the unvarnished truth is that I am much more a perennial skeptic and an occasional cynic about human motivations than I am a monarchist or any other kind of true believer.

Michael Berumen is a retired CEO and a published author on diverse topics including economics, mathematics, music, and philosophy. He has lectured to civic, academic, and business audiences internationally, and testified before the US Congress and local legislative and regulatory bodies as an expert witness on health insurance reform. He has served on various boards of directors. Among other things, he is the author of the book Do No Evil: Ethics with Applications to Economic Theory and Business. An Army veteran, aviator, kung fu sifu, outdoorsman, music lover, former juvenile delinquent, CSUEB and Stanford alum, and longtime Californian, he and his wife retired to the northern Colorado countryside. He still takes on speaking engagements, but on a limited basis. http://www.michaelberumen.academia.edu/ and http://www.michaelberumen.academia.edu/

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