The institution of monarchy has been back in the news lately, with the abdication of the erstwhile Spanish king Juan Carlos I and the ascension of his son, Felipe (Philip) VI. Elsewhere in the world, monarchies still make the news and shape events in places as far apart as Thailand, Bhutan, Belgium, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia. To many contemporary readers, monarchies seem to be purposeless antiquated relics, anachronisms that ought to eventually give way to republics.
On the contrary, nothing can be farther from the truth. Monarchies have an extremely valuable role to play, even in the 21st century. If anything their number should be added to rather than subtracted from. To understand why, it is important to consider the merits of monarchy objectively without resorting to the tautology that countries ought to be democracies because they ought to be democracies.
There are several advantages in having a monarchy in the 21st century. First, as Serge Schmemann argues in The New York Times, monarchs can rise above politics in the way an elected head of state cannot. Monarchs represent the whole country in a way democratically elected leaders cannot and do not. The choice for the highest political position in a monarchy cannot be influenced by and in a sense beholden to money, the media, or a political party.
Secondly and closely related to the previous point is that in factitious countries like Thailand, the existence of a monarch is often the only thing holding the country back from the edge of civil war. Monarchs are especially important in multiethnic countries such as Belgium because the institution of monarchy unites diverse and often hostile ethnic groups under shared loyalty to the monarch instead of to an ethnic or tribal group. The Habsburg dynasty held together a large, prosperous country that quickly balkanized into almost a dozen states of no power without it. If the restoration of the erstwhile king of Afghanistan, Zahir Shah, widely respected by all Afghans, went through after the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, perhaps Afghanistan would have more quickly risen above the factionalism and rivalry between various warlords.
Third, monarchies prevent the emergence of extreme forms of government in their countries by fixing the form of government. All political leaders must serve as prime ministers or ministers of the ruler. Even if actual power lies with these individuals, the existence of a monarch makes it difficult to radically or totally alter a country’s politics. The presence of kings in Cambodia, Jordan, and Morocco holds back the worst and more extreme tendencies of political leaders or factions in their countries. Monarchy also stabilizes countries by encouraging slow, incremental change instead of extreme swings in the nature of regimes. The monarchies of the Arab states have established much more stable societies than non-monarchic Arab states, many of which have gone through such seismic shifts over the course of the Arab Spring.
Fourth, monarchies have the gravitas and prestige to make last-resort, hard, and necessary decisions — decisions that nobody else can make. For example, Juan Carlos of Spain personally ensured his country’s transition to a constitutional monarchy with parliamentary institutions and stood down an attempted military coup. At the end of the Second World War, the Japanese Emperor Hirohito defied his military’s wish to fight on and saved countless of his people’s lives by advocating for Japan’s surrender.
Fifth, monarchies are repositories of tradition and continuity in ever changing times. They remind a country of what it represents and where it came from, facts that can often be forgotten in the swiftly changing currents of politics.
Finally, rather counterintuitively, monarchies can serve up a head of state in a more democratic and diverse way than actual democratic politics. Since anyone, regardless of their personality or interests, can by accident of birth become a monarch, all types of people may become rulers in such a system. The head of state may thus promote causes or stir interest in issues and topics that would otherwise not be significant, as Prince Charles’ views on architecture prove. Politicians on the other hand, tend to have a certain personality — they are generally extroverted, can make or raise money, and have a tendency to pander or at least publicly hold to pre-defined mainstream views. The presence of a head of state with a psychological profile different from a politician can be refreshing.
Most of the criticisms of monarchy are no longer valid today, if they were ever valid. These criticisms are usually some variation of two ideas. Firstly, the monarch may wield absolute power arbitrarily without any sort of check, thus ruling as a tyrant. However, in present era, most monarchies rule within some sort of constitutional or traditional framework which constrains and institutionalizes their powers. Even prior to this, monarchs faced significant constraints from various groups including religious institutions, aristocracies, the wealthy, and even commoners. Customs, which always shape social interactions, also served to restrain. Even monarchies that were absolute in theory were almost always constrained in practice.
A second criticism is that even a good monarch may have an unworthy successor. However, today’s heirs are educated from birth for their future role and live in the full glare of the media their entire lives. This constrains bad behavior. More importantly, because they have literally been born to rule, they have constant, hands-on training on how to interact with people, politicians, and the media.
In light of the all the advantages of monarchy, it is clear why many citizens of democracies today have an understandable nostalgia for monarchy. As in previous centuries, monarchy will continue to show itself to be an important and beneficial political institution wherever it still survives.