Do Not Confuse Appearance and Function: Constraints Need Not Be Monarchical

The response essays by Profs. Spruk and Guillén appear to go further than mine in tying constitutional/ceremonial monarchies to economic growth. Whereas I argued that getting rid of monarchies where they exist would make countries poorer, they argue that monarchies made those countries richer. At first glance, there appears to be no differences between the two arguments. First glances are deceiving.

There is a world of difference between these claims, and it stems from misidentification of the root causes of growth. In my view, ceremonial monarchies are merely the organic outgrowth of constraint-generating processes meant to create parameters around the exercise of political power. Those constraints are what permit economic growth because they limit the abilities of political actors to create stable rent-seeking coalitions and indulge in political business cycles. Removing or weakening the constraints halts or slows down economic growth.

My emphasis on the removal or the erosion of constraints is due to what makes de jure constraints effective. Constitutions are merely pieces of paper. They can be ignored, as per the infamous statement of Pompey Magnus, who wondered why people insisted on quoting laws to him while he carried a sword. What gives a constitution a de facto backing is a set of actual incentives upon rulers—and by incentives, I mean costs for doing the “bad” thing and benefits from doing the “right” thing. The problem with generating de facto backing is that it is an inherently organic process that takes time, and which is specific to the area/polity in which it happens.

For example, the much-lauded Magna Carta was a de jure constraint that was powerless in its first incarnation in 1215. However, its reissued version in 1225 is the one to which we frequently attribute the gradual constraining of English governments. Why did the 1215 version fail? According to Peter Leeson and Paola Suarez in the International Review of Law and Economics, that version offered few benefits to the crown, which saw little gain to be made from respecting it. Thus, King John repudiated it because he stood to gain from doing so. The second version, on the other hand, purged many elements that were hostile to the king’s interests and kept a bargain whereby both the crown and the barons gained. Thus the arrangement became self-enforcing and the mutually beneficial political exchange created a de facto constraint.

This translates well to other monarchies: the process of creating constraints upon political power requires a bargaining process whose outcomes depends on the peculiarities of the case. Each monarchy that survived engaged in a bargaining process whereby there were mutual benefits for each party to respect the arrangement and high costs to defecting.

Thus, in my view, all that matters is that constraints are created. It does not need to be constraints within a monarchical framework. For example, classicist Josiah Ober notes that the impressive economic growth enjoyed in Ancient Greece can be attributed to the political fractionalization of the region. Each city-state kept the other in check through the threat of violence. At the same time, internal migration gave rewards to good policies while non-appropriable comparative advantages (i.e. conquering a sub-region did not mean that you could conquer its industries or resources) meant few advantages from conquest. There was no monarch, merely de facto constraints specific to Ancient Greece that favored economic growth.

In fact, the example of Ancient Greece speaks best to my point. The Greek efflorescence described by Ober ended when the Romans conquered the region and placed it under unified rule. In other words, it ended when the Romans destroyed the constraints that had created wealth in the first place.

Get rid of the constraints, end growth. That is my argument that can be applied for monarchies, republics, federations, confederations, and others. It is merely an accident of circumstances that ceremonial monarchs became such a frequently observed constraint. Thus, in a way, Prof. Davies (to whom I will reply in a separate article) is correct in stating that my case is “limited” and “dependent on history.”

However, that does not reduce the potency of my case—it only heightens it, as this is where one can best observe the differences between my view and those of Profs. Spruk and Guillén. Their argument is that there is something inherent to ceremonial monarchs that is growth-promoting. It is by virtue of the de jure nature of constitutional monarchies that growth is possible. My argument is that constraints are, in general, growth-promoting, and that where ceremonial monarchs persist, they are providing such constraints. In their argument, shifting to another form of political organization would inherently be detrimental. In fact, their argument should warrant an expansion of the number of constitutional monarchies. In Prof. Spruk’s case, the argument is even more straightforward: if monarchs do not permit growth, they disappear, and so it serves their immediate interest to stimulate economic growth.[1] In my argument, if a ceremonial monarch is deposed and a new and more effective set of constraints replaces him, then a country could set itself on a better growth path.

For example, imagine if Canada became a republic and got rid of the Queen. This would remove the constraints imposed by the Governor General and Lieutenant-Governors. However, imagine that the new constitution mandated that the Canadian Senate allow nominations from provinces according to the wishes of provincial governments. In that case, the Senate would acquire a role in checking the powers of the federal governments that it has never held or wielded. Similarly, the provinces could be forced to reinstitute their own upper chambers and have a nomination process that looks like the American senate. In that case, different regions within provinces would check the powers of the provincial governments.

These could be an effective constraint replacement as strong bicameralism. It could also fail to do so as bicameralism appears to generate greater levels of government spending. As such, there would need to be a debate over whether a new constraint is superior in a given context. If presented with sufficiently powerful substitute constraints, I would abandon my case for keeping a ceremonial monarch.

Thanks to the arguments of Profs. Spruk and Guillén, I did realize one of the implicit assumptions in my mind that motivated my case. I argue that we should not get rid of ceremonial monarchs because of who the average (or even median) anti-monarchist is. That average anti-monarchist never emphasizes the role of political constraints. He also never proposes a replacement constraint. In other words, my defense of existing ceremonial monarchies is based on the fact that no one has come up with a better instrument to constrain rulers in places where ceremonial monarchs still rule. This fact explains why, at first glance, there are no differences between my argument and that of Profs. Spruk and Guillén even though I see a world of differences between them.

[1] I would add a brief digression here regarding one of the claims of Prof. Spruk regarding poor monarchies that collapsed because they were unable to generate growth. The French monarchy, in 1792, is used as an example of a poor society. This example is unsuited for his case. New evidence by economic historians such as Leonardo Ridolfi and myself suggest that France was much rich than previously estimated. As for the example of Italy, the explanation is relatively simpler – the stain of having allowed fascism to rise was impossible to remove. Other constitutional monarchies that were not dramatically richer than Italy (pre-war) such as Belgium, Netherlands and Japan (the latter was as rich as Italy) survived the war.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Why keep a monarchy that’s largely or purely ceremonial? One possible answer is that a ceremonial monarch is much better than a real tyrant. More to the point, where monarchy has survived, it has commonly been by adapting itself successfully to the rise of liberal democracy. Thus, while we should neither create new monarchies nor expand the powers of existing ones, Prof. Geloso argues that constitutional monarchs have paradoxically produced effective constraints on governance over time.

Response Essays

  • Of the 43 monarchies in the world, 23 are among the 50 richest countries. Contrary to their reputation, they show high levels of economic equality and income per capita. Mauro F. Guillén argues that this is because “the constitutional monarchy represents a compromise between tradition and modernity” and “a beautiful solution to a wide array of governance problems.” He finds it particularly important that monarchs act as a check on the otherwise boundless ambition of elected executives.

  • Stephen Davies argues that monarchy fulfills one of the key functions of government, which moderns are apt to overlook. Monarchies are symbolically unifying, and—as long as we must have a head of state—a monarch fills that role while serving as a symbolic and relatively apolitical link to the past and the future of the nation.

  • Rok Spruk argues that proponents of constitutional monarchy have reversed the causality: Countries that began the modern era relatively wealthy were more likely to keep their monarchies over time than those that did not. Because wealthier countries could keep their institutions, their monarchies came along for the ride. Those that suffered wars or revolutions were also more often forced to reconsider their systems of government, monarchies included.