Why keep a hereditary king or queen whose functions are largely ceremonial? Isn’t it contradictory for liberal democracies to keep unelected heads of state, even if their functions are ceremonial? With these two elements in mind, the case grows for getting rid of the remaining vestiges of monarchies, which exist in 30 countries. If one values consistency, those two questions constitute a strong enough case against preserving the largely ceremonial monarchs still reigning.
However, valuing consistency may yield practically different effects. Paradoxically, the preservation of unelected and hereditary rulers as ceremonial heads of state where they have politically survived secures both liberal democracy and the fruits it yields. This paradox has many layers of nuance and thus, before proceeding, I must specify what I do not intend to argue. I am not making a case for extending the number or the power of monarchies. I am also not making the case that ceremonial monarchs are beneficial to economic growth.
Rather, what I am arguing is that where monarchs have survived in liberal democracies, they have done so because they adapted to democratic life over decades (centuries even) in ways that preserve the liberal democratic order in these societies. This adaptation and eventual symbiosis was an organic process. It cannot be transplanted in places other than where the ceremonial monarchs currently serve. It also means that getting rid of these monarchs may make the places where they still ceremonially rule worse off because doing so eliminates an important safeguard to stability.
How Monarchies Become Ceremonial
Most democracies, as a matter of history, were born in wrestling matches with monarchs. Few monarchs survived the rise of democracies as witnessed by the cemetery of European monarchies (e.g. Italy, Greece, Portugal, Austria, Germany, France). In the face of rising democratic movements, monarchs have to find a power-sharing agreement, as in Britain, or rely on repression, which then opens the door to revolution and the guillotine. Assuming that we deem the first course of action to be normatively preferable (as it implies a constitutional monarchy rather than an absolute one), how can the monarch survive? After all, democratic factions could easily renounce the agreement, opt to fully transition to a republic, and depose the monarch.
For any power-sharing arrangement to be respected, there must be some forms of de facto constraints that limit the desire for either party to act opportunistically. For the monarchy, the constraints are easy to identify. As they are perceived to be less legitimate than the rightfully elected members of the legislature, monarchs know that overstepping their authority might lead to the public siding with the democratic factions in favor of republicanism. For the democratic factions, the constraints are somewhat more symbolic. Absent the ability to rely on the army to provide repression, monarchs can mostly rely on strongly symbolic cultural imagery, historical legacies and/or religious functions to foster friendly relationships with the public. These tools help create the possibility of a political backlash from democratic factions that seek to renounce the agreement with the monarch. Thus we can explain how 36 of the 86 states that began statehood successfully transitioned to the status of constitutional monarchy.
What is important to notice here is that constitutional monarchs are not apolitical. They still wield a considerable amount of power—of influence—over political affairs, and they do not intervene indiscriminately of political fault lines. For example, Elizabeth II did leak her discontent regarding Margaret Thatcher’s prime ministership, especially with regard to South Africa’s Apartheid. Such leaks had significant influence on political affairs. Soon-to-be King Juan Carlos I of Spain was decidedly not apolitical during the transition away from the decades-long dictatorship of Francisco Franco. King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand also acted in non-neutral manner during a political scandal that involved his Prime Minister in the early 2000s.
What matters for rulers is not to be apolitical but rather to be acting appropriately based on their popularity with the public. For the sake of illustration, imagine an unpopular sovereign. For fear of overthrow, that unpopular constitutional monarch might be more inclined toward self-restraint and avoid expressing his political preferences because he fears appearing political. If he fails to do so, he invites disaster. More popular monarchs, on the other hand, may feel that they can express their preferences to a greater degree since their position is not threatened.
The Safeguards Offered by Ceremonial Monarchs
As such, ceremonial monarchs are not apolitical and neutral players. In fact, they cannot be as it would threaten their self-preservation. Some might argue that this is a bad thing, but I would argue that it provides the main virtue of a ceremonial monarch for the preservation of a liberal democratic order. The political potency of such monarchs—while very far from that of absolute monarchs—stems from their large control of pomp and ceremony as tools for preservation, which they may withhold from democratically elected politicians.
As I mentioned above, the political survival of monarchs in liberal democracies depends on being able to invest in imagery and symbols from history that increase their popularity. Consider the case of honors, which consist in elevating certain citizens in social standing due to their great merit or contribution to national pride. In Britain, many of the highest honors are the exclusive preserve of Her Majesty (e.g. the Most Noble Order of the Garter, the Royal Victorian Order, the Order of Merit) and many others are conferred with her approval. Even when the prime ministers provide inputs for candidates for the citizens who are chosen for the honors, the ultimate decision rests with the queen. The incentives of preservation are for the queen to single out relatively respectable figures on the basis of actual accomplishments or run the risk of taking a popularity hit.
Contrast this with America’s Presidential Medal of Freedom, where the president often uses the honors he confers to reward party faithful. This was the case, for example, under the presidency of Donald Trump, when the medal was granted to Senator Orrin Hatch, Representative Jim Jordan, and radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh. Barack Obama did the same with senator Ted Kennedy and Representative John Lewis. The president can also use the medal to advance his own political messaging, such by awarding it to individuals who advance their political positions, causes, and agendas. Donald Trump gave it to Arthur Laffer in the hopes of mustering support for his tax cuts. Barack Obama did something similar when he granted the medal to Billie Jean King and Harvey Milk (posthumously) in order to “honor agents of change” who happened to be symbols of the cause of the gay civil rights movement, which he championed as president.
The difference between the British and American systems is thus apparent: whereas American presidents can use honors to cement their political coalitions or to advance their political agenda, the British monarchs must use honors to bolster their popularity with the wider public. This means that monarchs are more sensitive to public approval for their decisions than American presidents. However, in withholding this power from politicians, British monarchs are essentially making it harder for parties to secure the tools of power. This withholding becomes essentially a mild constraint. And constraints are what make liberal democracies … liberal!
This withholding extends beyond honors. For example, countries like Canada that still have Elizabeth II as head of state with a governor general who acts on her behalf. In practice, the governor general is the effective head of state in Canada. However, that office is by tradition nonpartisan. Even though they are nominated by suggestion of the prime minister, there are few incentives to deviate from the norm largely because constitutional reform to abolish the monarchy in Canada would mean opening the can of worms of Quebec’s constitutional status. As such, governors general have generally been nationally celebrated figures such as Georges Vanier (a francophone general with who served in both World Wars), Vincent Massey (a well-known patron of the arts and culture), Jules Léger (a career diplomat), and Julie Payette (an astronaut). In the different provinces, there are also lieutenant-governors who serve the same viceregal function. Equally uncontroversial nonpartisan figures tended to be nominated. For example, after a distinguished career in the Canadian Football League, Norman Lim Kwong was made lieutenant-governor of Alberta.
By withholding this function from the sphere of electoral politics and naming uncontroversial figures, the monarch’s representatives in Canada have been able to frequently and subtly push certain wider societal concerns. For example, the lieutenant governor of Quebec, Michel Doyon, warned against power abuses by the provincial government in the early days of the COVID pandemic. As a former head of the Quebec Bar Association, Doyon’s warning was taken as a serious contribution to the discussion. Such acts create another mild check on political power.
There is one last constraint that ceremonial rulers create even if it is not their intent to create it. By investing in symbolism to reach high levels of popularity, ceremonial monarchs could be generating higher levels of social trust, as Christian Bjørnskov notes. In so doing, they may be allowing a stronger civil society that can act as a substitute for government and as a check on the democratic tendencies to over-legislate and over-regulate. In other words, to survive, monarchs inadvertently create additional de facto (as opposed to de jure) constraints on governments.
The Fruits of Ceremonial Monarchy
This set of constraints inherent to the political survival process of ceremonial monarchs is important in terms of societal welfare. A large literature in political economy in general (and public choice in particular) emphasizes the crucial role of executive and legislative constraints not only for the preservation of liberal democracy but also for securing sustained economic growth. As such, one could summarize my argument as stating that a ceremonial monarch produces growth-enhancing constraints to government.
Some clever critics might, correctly, point out that this is where my case appears weak, as the available econometric evidence suggests no significant link between wealth and monarchy. However, one should bear in mind my opening statement regarding what I do not say. I do not claim that countries with ceremonial monarchs are richer, nor do I claim that they enjoy faster growth. What I do claim is that getting rid of these constraints would slow down growth and reduce living standards.
My use of the singular in describing the liberal democratic order is misleading. There are liberal democratic orders whose specific features, but not their spirits, change from nation to nation. These orders evolve; they are not designed by engineers. It is rather a long bargaining process between different groups that leave what Douglass North, Barry Weingast, and John Wallis have called “closed political orders” in favor of “open political orders,” The outcomes of these processes differ dramatically because they depend on the context in which the bargaining takes place.
In countries like the United States, the bargaining process led to a liberal democratic order that does not include a king. In Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, it led to a different liberal democratic order that includes a monarch. In both cases, the constraints on political power are different, but they are effective constraints. As such, each set of constraints protect economic growth and human welfare in its own way.
Therefore I say that countries which have a ceremonial monarch and decide to get rid of it would probably be trekking down a lesser path for economic growth. The extinction of such monarchies, by leading to a less constrained legislative and executive branch, might be synonymous with destroying a growth-enhancing check on power. The most efficient analogy at hand is to liken the deposition of Elizabeth II to changing the American electoral college in favor of popular suffrage. Both would dramatically alter a constraint on politicians.
As such, my case is not for constitutional monarchy. Rather it is a case for not getting rid of constitutional monarchies where they are already established. The constraints that exist under constitutional monarchy evolved over long periods of time and serve as direct and indirect safeguards that preserve the liberal democratic order. Eliminating the largely ceremonial monarchical positions would most likely entail a lesser and less enticing regime of economic growth and development due to greater political instability.