Shut up, royal baby haters. Monarchy is awesome.

July 23, 2013

This woman could be your queen. (AP)

The British monarchy is, like all monarchies, a deeply, deeply silly institution. It should be mocked mercilessly and frequently. But should it be abolished?

That what the 15 percent to 20 percent of Britons who support becoming a republic with an elected head of state want. And a lot of Americans, Gawker's resident polemicist Hamilton Nolan among them, share the antipathy. The Guardian has helpfully developed a filter for its republican (in the British sense) readers to filter out any unseemly coverage of the Royal Baby; see the top right corner here.

Are they right? Is the British monarchy "a grotesque relic of a less civilized time," as Nolan alleges? Should the Royal Baby's entire extended family be sent to the guillotine for treason to the principles of the revolution?

No. In fact, the U.S. should probably get itself a king or queen. Or prince or princess, if we want to kick it like Monaco. Or duke or duchess, if we want to be like Luxembourg — see, even the titles are fantastic! Monarchs are awesome, and constitutional monarchy is, at worst, fully compatible with representative democracy, and, at best, makes representative democracy stronger.

Let's go to the board


Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden. (Scanpix Sweden via Reuters)

Take a look at this chart of every country in the globe today. On the X-axis, you have the countries' PPP-adjusted GDP per capita. On your Y-axis, you have their life expectancy at birth (for both men and women).

If your country is in the top right corner, it's doing great. Everyone's rich and lives long, fulfilled lives. If it's in the bottom left corner, everything is terrible. If it's in the bottom right corner, then you live in the most rock and roll country on the planet, where everyone is rich and dies young. If it's in the top left corner, then everyone is not only poor but has to live in abject poverty for a really, really long time. I got rid of Luxembourg and Macao, which both have very high GDPs-per-capita, so the graph would be clearer (though note that Luxembourg is a constitutional monarchy, because it is a wonderful place).

Got it? Good. Now look at the map, and see where the constitutional monarchies (in pink, because they are special) are.


Constitutional monarchies have an average GDP per capita of $29,106.71 and an average life expectancy of 75.6. All other countries have an average GDP per capita of $12,518.76 and an average life expectancy of 68.3. Point: constitutional monarchies.

Of course, this doesn't demonstrate that having a constitutional monarchy makes countries richer, only that it's totally possible to both be a healthy, rich country and be a constitutional monarchy. The practice is hardly a "grotesque relic."

What's the alternative?


Italy doesn't have a king anymore, they just have this old Communist named Giorgio Napolitano as president. You happy know, republicans? You see what you've done? (Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters)

Of course, there are plenty of rich, healthy countries that aren't constitutional monarchies. If Britain chose to depose its divinely ordained rulers, it'd still need a head of state. So who would fit the bill? It could be the prime minister, but no other country's prime minister also serves as its head of state (unless you count the sultans of Brunei and Oman, who style themselves as prime ministers too).

Far more likely would be an elected president whose powers are mainly ceremonial. That's how Germany, Italy, Israel, Ireland, India, and many other countries with parliamentary systems do it. Either the public or some legislative body selects the president, who then serves as the country's formal head, what with the giving away of medals and the dinners and the whatnot.

Opponents of constitutional monarchy often point to this as their preferred alternative. The British group Republic supports abolishing the monarchy and replacing it with a directly elected president, and estimates that the British royal family costs almost ten times as much as the German president. So why not just do that, then?

First off, the British royal family is expensive, but that's not true of all monarchs. By Republic's own estimates, the royals of Denmark, Sweden, Belgium, Luxembourg and Spain all cost less than half as much as the president of Germany does. There's nothing inherent in monarchy that makes it more expensive. But the bigger problem is that, try as they might, ceremonial presidents just can't do what monarchs do.

The key to monarchs' success is that they're totally illegitimate. The people wouldn't stand for Queen Elizabeth exercising real political power just because of who her father was. That's a powerful deterrent that prevents monarchs from meddling in political affairs. The result is that in all but very rare cases, prime ministers in monarchies are never thrown out of office except when they call elections or when they receive a vote of no confidence in parliament. The head of state can't touch them.

That constraint is not present for presidents. And sure enough, presidents meddle in the affairs of the state with greater regularity than do monarchs. The Oxford political scientists Petra Schleiter and Edward Morgan-Jones find that in constitutional monarchies, the most common result of governments falling is the calling of new elections. If the old government wasn't working for whatever reason, the people are given the opportunity to elect another one. In republics, by contrast, it's more common for there to be a non-electoral replacement, where the existing parliament forms a new governing coalition. Giving the president, rather than the prime minister, the ability to dissolve a government increases the risk of non-electoral replacement by a factor of 3.37.


"Only in constitutional monarchies — where governments have much broader discretion to decide their fates than in republics —are early elections more common as a mode of discretionary cabinet termination than nonelectoral replacement," Schleiter and Morgan-Jones write. In other words, only constitutional monarchies force prime ministers to consult the people before shaking up their governments.

And though presidents who are indirectly elected by parliament are bad on this score, those, like Ireland's or Finland's, who are elected by the people directly are worse. Having a popularly-elected president almost doubles the odds of non-electoral replacement. That's what you'd expect; the president is more legitimate when popularly elected, and so is more likely to feel like she can refuse to dissolve the government when it suits her.

Margit Tavits at Washington University in St. Louis disagrees with this finding, arguing that directly- and indirectly-elected presidents are equally powerful. But direct election has other problems. Ironically, direct elections make the public less politically engaged. In her book, Presidents with Prime Ministers, Tavits found that "the additional election increases voter fatigue and decreases turnout in parliamentary elections by about 7 percent."

But don't worry, indirect elections, you're terrible too. Tavits finds that, "indirect elections can become as partisan, polarizing, and competitive as direct popular ones." Germany's indirect elections, for example, are the source of significant controversy. And the candidates who are elected tend to have partisan ties, and to rule in ways that benefit their party, even when indirectly elected. Estonia, for instance, has an indirectly elected president, but their presidents have traditionally been much more active than, say, Ireland's, who are directly elected. "Monarchs can truly be above politics. They usually have no party connections and have not been involved in daily politics before assuming the post of the head of state," Tavits e-mails. "This is not the case in the case of indirectly elected presidents."

The only downside of constitutional monarchies, compared to presidential systems, is that they make it easier for prime ministers to time elections to their advantage. But (a) there's evidence that voters punish governments that do that and (b) presidential systems don't stop governments from manipulating economic policy to make conditions better just before elections, as they've been shown to do.

On every metric that counts, constitutional monarchies match or best republics. They're more responsive to public opinion, more likely to have governments change in response to elections rather than political wrangling, and less likely to have partisan heads of state interfering with the political process.

It makes money


Look at all that economic output. (Lefteris Pitarakis / AP)

"It is often suggested that the Royal Family is 'affordable' or a 'bargain' for taxpayers, because their cost is minor compared to other costs, and besides, they help to "generate tourism,'" Nolan writes. "This is incorrect. Tourists would continue to go to the Tower of London and Buckingham Palace whether or not the Royal Family was being subsidized to the tune of tens of millions of dollars annually."

That's fair enough. Versailles doesn't lack for visitors and the Bourbon family is very much out of power. But there's a whole cottage industry around the British royal family. Tabloids would go out of business if they left. The tiny stimulus boomlets that occur around events like the royal baby's birth wouldn't be there anymore. Some estimates put the annual value of the royal "brand" at about £1.9 billion ($2.9 billion) against a cost of £250 million ($384 million). Even if that's off by a factor of ten — and, given the uncertainty with these kinds of estimates, it quite possibly is — it'd be a steal.

And again, consider the alternative. If Britons are annoyed at the royals' costs, then they should give them the budget of the Spanish monarch. That would put their cost at around that of elected presidents, but with all the advantages of monarchies detailed above.

In conclusion, get a king


Gotta get / those / Jacobites off your shoulder. (Lucy Nicholson / Reuters)

Constitutional monarchy is the best form of government that humanity has yet tried. It has yielded rich, healthy nations whose regime transitions are almost always due to elections and whose heads of state are capable of being truly apolitical. The U.S. would do well to adopt it (as well as parliamentary democracy, but that's a whole other argument). Jay-Z and Beyoncé are the logical choices for the first king and queen, but I'm open to suggestions.

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Brian Fung | July 23, 2013