About this Issue

Does a constitutional monarchy help or harm a country’s fortunes? In what ways? And how? Many fields attempt to answer these questions: Comparative history and economics, political science, political philosophy, sociology, and anthropology all have much to say here, with a substantial literature suggesting that the relatively uncontested workings of a constitutional monarchy—combined with its stability and symbolic importance to the nation—might give constitutional monarchies an advantage over other types of free government. 

Not all agree, of course. Many classical liberals will want to ask Thomas Paine’s question: Why do we think that skill at being a king has any heritability at all? And while we’re at it, we might want to ask what exactly makes a monarchy constitutional—and whether setting up a new one from scratch can possibly capture whatever benefits may come of having had one all along.

We have therefore recruited a panel that will consider these matters from a range of different disciplines and perspectives. Prof. Vincent Geloso of George Mason University has written the lead essay; responding to him will be Prof. Stephen Davies of the Institute of Economic Affairs, Prof. Rok Spruk of the University of Ljubljana, and Prof. Mauro Guillén of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. We also look forward to readers’ comments during the month to come.

Lead Essay

The Case for Not Getting Rid Of a Ceremonial Monarch

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.

Response Essays

The Monarchy and the Economy

Monarchies are frequently assumed to be inferior to other forms of government, especially republics, when it comes to economic matters. Most people believe that monarchies are more prone to confiscate property, wage war, undertake megalomaniac projects, add to the national debt, and mismanage the economy. The historical record, especially during the last 100 years, could not be more different than the conventional wisdom. In fact, many contemporary monarchies have delivered extremely high standards of living for their populations. But is it because they are monarchies or because they have adopted other features that tend to result in greater economic performance? Experts frequently mention it is no mystery that the monarchies that survived to the present time have done well economically—otherwise, so the argument goes, they would have succumbed.

Of the 43 monarchies in the world, more than half (23) are among the 50 richest countries. By contrast, of the 157 republics, only 27 are among the 50 richest, a mere 18 percent. Shockingly, if one looks at the 50 countries in the world with the lowest per capita income, the overwhelming majority of them are not monarchies or former monarchies, although it is true that many were colonized by monarchies, and perhaps that is a leading reason why they continue to be poor.

Monarchies are frequently accused of concentrating wealth at the top. So, how do they compare in terms of income inequality? The answer is very well indeed. Of the 113 countries for which data on income distribution (Gini coefficient) are available, seven are among the half with lower inequality, and only four are among the half with higher inequality.

In a nutshell, at least the monarchies that have survived to the present time tend to have high levels of income per capita and low levels of income inequality. But why exactly do they tend to perform better than republics? Is it mostly the constitutional-democratic monarchies that do better, or is it also the absolutist and non-democratic ones? Before we address these questions, it is important to understand how monarchies became “modern,” in the sense of becoming subject to the rule of law.

The main reason behind the economic performance of monarchies in the contemporary world is that the constitutional monarchy represents a compromise between tradition and modernity. It represents a brake on the boundless ambition of politicians. And it works as a mechanism preserving what deserves to remain while incorporating what the circumstances call for. While not alone in serving all of these different purposes, the constitutional monarchy is a beautiful solution to a wide array of governance problems.

In his Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu wrote that England was “a republic, disguised under the form of monarchy.” One of the ironies about the constitutional monarchy is that it has become associated, first and foremost, with a country that lacks a formal constitution. The United Kingdom, with its unique parliamentary and monarchical traditions, is frequently proposed as the model for everyone else to emulate.

People often argue that the advantages of a constitutional monarchy can be obtained with the parliamentary system that republics offer, that is, when an elected head of state who acts as arbiter and figurehead is combined with that of a prime minister appointed by parliament following the will of the people. One example is Germany, where the Federal President is the head of state while the Chancellor is the head of the executive branch. Nowadays, there are 46 such parliamentary republics in the world, compared to 100 presidential republics, such as France or the United States.

The defenders of constitutional monarchy observe that the ability of the sovereign to play the role of impartial arbiter is much greater than that of the elected head of state in a parliamentary system. Elected presidents, they argue, can more easily become enmeshed in political maneuvering because they were elected to that position, either directly or indirectly, while hereditary sovereigns do not generally have the legitimacy or the constitutional mandate to do so.

A second way in which the constitutional monarch may be better positioned than the elected president-figurehead involves the tendency for politicians to perpetuate themselves in power. Inevitably, longevity in the executive branch tends to result in abuse of power. In my own research I found that the longer the head of the executive branch stays in power—be it a prime minister, president, absolute monarch, or dictator—the more property rights come under attack. My study comparing monarchies and republics between 1900 and 2010 also unveiled that monarchies in general are more effective than parliamentary republics when it comes to minimizing the abusive behavior of leaders of the executive branch who perpetuate themselves in power. The institution of the monarchy includes the idea of dynastic succession as a key element, one that can potentially temper the ambition of politicians. This is an aspect that parliamentary republics with an elected head of state cannot possibly provide.

In my research I also found that democratic-constitutional monarchies are in a better position than non-democratic and absolute monarchies to address the abuses generated by excessive executive tenure. The argument here is that in many countries the monarchy historically became subservient to “clientelism,” something that constitutional arrangements sought to eradicate. In the contemporary world, the trend of “sultanism” in the Middle East and North Africa underpins a system in which the king cannot effectively curtail the abuses of an entrenched executive branch. Limited freedoms and the absence of democratic practices in that part of the world translate into a lack of transparency and accountability that monarchies typically fail to address.

A third way in which a constitutional monarch can lead to a better political process than an elected president-figurehead is by providing an additional check and balance on the overall political system. This is normally referred to as the countervailing power that the monarch can exercise, either under a constitutional system or in the absolutist case, in situations in which the branches of government do not function properly.

The constitutional monarchy is the finest version of an ancient institution tailored to a time defined by nationalism, state-building, and a political dynamic driven by the interplay among conservative, liberal, and socialist ideas. Its intrinsic versatility facilitated a surprising mutation in its very purpose, shifting from protecting the rights of the people against royal arbitrariness to creating an institutional figurehead as head of state who would help constrain the unhinged and self-dealing impulses of elected politicians. As Emperor Franz Josef of Austria-Hungary intimated to U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt in 1910, “The role of the monarchy is ‘to protect my peoples from their governments.’”

It is thus fair to conclude that in the contemporary world, after centuries of framing the role of the sovereign in constitutional terms, and especially in the case of the European democratic-constitutional monarchies, people do better economically under monarchies than under republics, whether they are democratic or not.

The Symbol and Substance of Government

I agree with Vincent Geloso that there is a strong case for a ceremonial monarch as head of state in a liberal political order and community and also that this case can be made on both empirical and theoretical grounds. I think, however, that his argument understates and weakens the case by limiting it to a specific category of polities. This is partly because he rests his case on a historical account that is partial and misleading, and excessively Eurocentric. He also makes an argument from economic consequences that while correct needs to be folded into a wider theory of government and politics.

What does he argue? His central point is captured in his title: “The Case for Not Getting Rid of a Constitutional Monarch.” This is a negative argument against abolishing the remaining existing constitutional monarchies. It is not an argument for monarchy in general or for increasing the number of states that have a constitutional monarch as their head of state. Specifically, he makes an argument for retaining monarchy in countries that have undergone a particular historical process. In his account monarchies in Europe (as well as some elsewhere, such as Thailand) have gradually conceded powers to democratic political institutions through a bargaining process. Consequently, they have survived where others that did not do this, such as the Habsburg, Romanoff, and Hohenzollern monarchies, have not. Moreover, they have survived the threat of peaceful supplanting by republican democrats by drawing upon and mobilizing soft or symbolic sources of power. In Walter Bagehot’s famous terminology they have moved from the efficient to the symbolic part of government.

However, he argues, this still leaves them with an important role and an extensive influence. Their role removes certain matters from politics and creates important (sometimes informal but still effective) constraints on both legislative and executive action. This in turn means that constitutional stability and rules-based and rules-bound governance are more firmly founded; these in turn correlate very strongly with economic stability and growth. You can get these without a constitutional monarchy, but you are much more likely to get them if you have one. Moreover, as the historical record shows, constitutional monarchies are more resistant to arbitrary and despotic forms of politics, such as fascism or integralism.

All of this is true. However, the case made is actually too limited and too dependent on history. It is also too focused on a specific case, that of hereditary monarchy in Europe. It ignores the evidence of other kinds of monarchy in Europe and elsewhere, and it misses the more general case for a monarchical head of state that does not rest on it being a specific historical residual. There is an argument that is more general and applies to the restoration of monarchy in some places, its introduction in others, and a formal recognition of a monarch’s role elsewhere.

Even in Europe there is not a simple trajectory from absolute to ceremonial monarchy. Some monarchies (e.g. Poland) were always constitutional. Elsewhere there was an oscillation over the centuries between more powerful and more ceremonial roles—Sweden is a case of this. A ceremonial monarchy is the limiting case of a constitutional one, where the effective powers have been completely removed (a constitutional monarchy can have such powers but constrained or limited in some way). The Japanese monarchy has been purely ceremonial for most of its very long history. There are also many cases in Europe and elsewhere of monarchies that are not strictly hereditary. To name two examples, there is the papacy and previously the dogeship in Venice. In Africa there are many monarchies where the successor is chosen not by a strict rule of succession but by a process from one large extended family or clan. This was also the practice in Chinese imperial dynasties and among many Islamic dynasties both today and historically (e.g. the Ottomans).

In Africa, contrary to myth, monarchies have almost always been constitutional and limited in their functions. Autocrats such as Shaka Zulu were the exception. In the post-colonial era traditional monarchies were formally abolished, but in reality they are still around and have considerable social, cultural, and political importance as holders of symbolic power. Increasingly this is formally and explicitly recognized (as in Uganda for example). Malaysia is another example of this process, though there the monarchs are explicitly recognized in the constitution. All this suggests that we need not rely on a historical evolutionary model and focus on the relicts or survivors. There is a general theoretical case that a ceremonial monarchy is valuable.

The place to start is with a simple question. Why have a head of state at all? Also, why make this office separate from that of head of the executive? Many states combine the two, but there are also some where the office of head of state hardly exists, such as Switzerland. My own position is that in my perfect world there would be no heads of state. However, this is because I wish for a world in which the sphere of politics has been reduced to a minimum. In the real world as it is and is likely to be for a considerable time, you do need a head of state. So the question is why. The key is that political power and governance have always had two aspects, which we may call the totemic or sacral and the active or practical. (These correspond to Bagehot’s dignified and functional). In many but not all historical monarchies these two are combined.

The effective is easily described—it is the actual business of government. What then is the sacral? Firstly, it is the embodiment of the historical identity of the political community as an entity composed of and associated with a specific people and territory that extends through time even as the actual human beings that compose it change and are replaced. It is like a sports team in that respect. Secondly, it is the performance and enactment of certain rituals of symbolic importance or significance that are seen to express that identity and to sustain it through the participation, active or passive, of the population. The monarch is the person who in their physical being instantiates and represents that existence or identity and plays a central role in the performance and enaction of the rituals. (In theory it need not be a person; it can be an object, such as the Crown of St. Stephen, which fills this function in Hungary, and very often an object or place is associated with the person).

The sacral power is enormously important. It, through the person who embodies it, gives legitimacy to the acts of the effective power. This means that those actions will be accepted, even if grudgingly, by those who disagree with them. This minimizes the risks of physical conflicts over interests, power, or ideology. There is also always a residual power, namely to deny legitimacy and to counter particularly egregious acts, or those that threaten the continued existence of the political community. These are clearly a kind of last resort to be used only in desperate circumstances, but their existence and its public recognition both matter. They act as a final check, and they make the kinds of crisis that would require their use less likely. An example is the acknowledged residual power that Queen Elizabeth has to veto an Act to extend the life of a Parliament without an election by refusing the Royal Assent.

If there is going to be a head of state, what form should it take? The first thing is that a head of state should not also be a head of government and so combine the sacral and effective functions in the way medieval monarchs often did, even if this is done on a democratic basis. This is a basic design flaw of the constitution of the United States and most Latin American countries. If you do this you compromise the sacral power by mixing it up with everyday current politics, and you can give an unwarranted gloss of legitimacy to egregious policies. Secondly, how to choose the person who has the role? Why have a monarch as opposed to an elected person serving a fixed term? A democratic selection process makes popular support, direct or indirect, the source of legitimacy. But the whole point of the sacral power is that it does not come from a particular one-time snapshot of opinion. Moreover, the term limit reduces the symbolic power and meaning of the role and its connection to the foundational and persistent. An office held for life and then handed on to a successor at death is clearly not part of the regular electoral cycle but is something that goes beyond that.

This shows why an element of heredity is preferable and brings benefits. The great problem of politics is short time horizons. In both democratic and oligarchic politics, to consider anything beyond the near future is difficult. However, as Burke put it, a political community is an association of the dead, the living, and the yet-to-be-born. This is not just a matter of theory. Questions of intergenerational justice are now very pressing, with climate change and government debt two examples. Increasingly such issues and other global catastrophic risks require multi-generational thinking if we are to address them. The language and symbolism of contemporary politics works against this.

Embodying the sacral power in a hereditary monarch helps here. The monarch themselves will tend to take a longer view and can express that. Even more important is the symbolic aspect. The human being that is the monarch embodies in their own descent and successors the continuity of generations and the way that a political community is an association with an existence and identity and interests that extend through time. A monarchy makes this apparent and helps to give a political culture a more long-term orientation. It is not alone; institutions such as families, churches, guilds, universities, and sports teams also do this. Powerful influences stand against it, such as contemporary media, the way contemporary business works, and influential movements in modern art and culture, but a monarchy provides a check against these in a way that regular politics cannot.

Yet none of this means that we should have monarchs with effective powers. Apart from the argument already made that this is a bad idea, there is an abundance of evidence that heredity is a really bad way to choose who exercises actual power. It does mean though that we should not only look to keep those ceremonial monarchies we still have. We should also look to revive those carelessly cast aside, as Spain has done, and to apply the principle to parts of the world where monarchy has not existed historically for a long time. Latin America would be a good case, and I would venture to suggest that even the United States could learn from Canada, separate the offices of head of state and head of government, and have a hereditary, sacral, and symbolic monarch.

Monarchy: Cause of Prosperity—or Consequence?

In a stimulating and thought-enriching essay, Vincent Geloso presents a plausible, polemic, and incredibly well-articulated case for the preservation of the ceremonial monarchies. The core of the argument emphasizes the organic process of the institutional adaptation of constitutional monarchies to both internal and external shocks that culminated in a greater propensity to preserve both formal and informal facets of liberal democracy. In doing so, Professor Geloso argues that ceremonial monarchies have better safeguards on executive power-holding that supposedly restrains the opportunistic tendencies of legislatures and prime ministers, provides more robust levels of political stability, and is thus open to sustained economic growth and social development more broadly. The essay concludes by presenting a case for not getting rid of the monarchy, as such an institutional switch would lead to slower economic growth and reduced standards of living.

The institutional advantages of the constitutional monarchies should not be left to the empiricist’s neglect. Some of the richest and most successful countries in Europe, such as Denmark and the Netherlands, are constitutional monarchies enjoying high levels of social trust and envious living standards. However, the fact that rich constitutional monarchies have evolved over centuries in a handful of countries located in Northern Europe does not per se comprise a plausible case for preserving monarchies in general.[1]

If one accepts the notion that monarchies provide more successful institutional arrangements in terms of the strength of property rights, executive constraints, and the ability to peacefully resolve internal conflict, the proliferation of the republican form of government in the twentieth and twenty-first century is puzzling. The fundamental question concerns the ability of each to impose growth-enhancing constraints on the arbitrary power of government. As such, it cannot be properly answered without paying attention to reverse causation therein. Do constitutional monarchies provide the set of institutional arrangements that foster economic growth better than republics? Or are richer countries simply better able to afford constitutional monarchies? In a recent working paper with Nuno Garoupa of George Mason University, we tackle this reverse causation in the relationship between the constitutional monarchy and economic growth. In a nutshell, we suggest that long-run economic growth explains the survival of constitutional monarchies rather than vice versa.

The cornerstone of our theoretical argument is straightforward. When the monarchic regime is unable to produce enough economic growth, it collapses and is replaced by the republican form of government that promulgates substantially more egalitarian social arrangements. The wealthier European countries remained monarchies in the twenty-first century not necessarily because constitutional monarchies intrinsically develop better safeguards against arbitrary executive power but precisely because they were able to achieve relatively high levels of per capita income prior to the major shocks such as World Wars I and II. In particular, countries with per capita GDP prior to both wars at the 75th percentile and above in the world distribution that remained constitutional monarchies, such as Belgium and United Kingdom, have significantly better long-run growth than others. On the other hand, countries with a pre-war per capita GDP either at the median or below in the world distribution that remained constitutional monarchies for some time in the post-war period, such as Greece and South Africa, have consistently slower long-run economic growth after remaining monarchies in the midst of world wars. Poorer countries that have suffered heavily from a military defeat, such as Germany, Italy, Austria, and several others have become republics precisely because their monarchies failed to redistribute the payoffs to generate sufficient level of wealth for the monarchic institutional arrangements to survive. Our counterfactual analysis shows that if the poorer countries becoming republics after the wars had preserved the old monarchies, they would be even less successful in terms of per capita GDP.

These findings further corroborate the evidence in favor of the argument that the institutional advantages of the constitutional monarchy are path-dependent and should be interpreted in country-specific context. The institutional strengths of the British monarchy are by and large impossible to ignore. The United Kingdom is recognized as one of the most liberal, participatory, and egalitarian democracies according to a recent V-DEM index of democracy. At the same time, a non-trivial number of non-monarchies boast even more inclusive political regimes in terms of liberal, participatory, egalitarian, or electoral criteria, such as Costa Rica, Switzerland, Uruguay, Italy, Germany, and Estonia, to name a few. None of these countries is a constitutional monarchy. Moreover, twenty out of thirty countries characterized by having a very high inequality-adjusted human development index are republics rather than constitutional monarchies.

The survival of the constitutional monarchies can be seldom discussed in isolation from the level of wealth attained prior to the major turning points in both the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The survival of monarchies seems to occur only when the level of wealth, either through the lens of per capita GDP or any other more plausible metrics, is sufficient to generate widespread support for the consolidation of monarchic institutions. When a high level of wealth is sustained, constitutional monarchies can promote a successful adaptation and generate a more effective compromise, and they may even provide stronger property rights. But in the sheer absence of a sufficient level of wealth, effective comprise is hardly possible since the monarchical institutions cannot afford to redistribute resources among the economic and social groups constituting the electorate. Instead they tend to collapse, which brings an institutional transition to a republican regime. Examples of collapsing constitutional monarchies in the presence of comparably low levels of per capita GDP relative to the United States—often punctuated by military defeat—include the end of the Ancien Régime in France in 1792, the fall of the Portuguese monarchy in 1910, the abolition of monarchy by the Greek military junta in 1973, the birth of Weimar Republic in 1918, and the institutional transition to a republic in Italy in 1946.

Given the obvious strengths of the constitutional monarchy, it might be worth asking why some of the most successful economies, such as the United States, have opted for a republic. The notion that ceremonial monarchies have superior executive powerholding safeguards can hardly be taken for granted. The safeguards fostered by constitutional monarchy may also thrive elsewhere, as the common law tradition demonstrates. Moreover, the question pertaining to whether monarchies have substantially better safeguards against the abuse of executive power is unclear both theoretically and empirically. Strong safeguards can be found among monarchies and republics alike inasmuch as weak or seemingly nonexistent safeguards are perceivable across both regimes. If constitutional monarchy usually promulgates successful adaptation mechanisms, an accelerated rise in the number of republics in the twentieth century would be puzzling all by itself. Since one institutional dimension does not fit all, the notion that Britain should stay a monarchy whilst the United States has nothing to gain from becoming one need not be a subject of widespread dispute. If the gains from constitutional monarchy were both apparent and tangible, constitutional monarchies should consistently have more growth-enhancing policies in place with considerably fewer anti-growth biases than republics. Perhaps somewhat paradoxically, economic policies that received wide support from majorities, but which eventually hurt their interests, flourished both in constitutional monarchies such as the unfortunate and costly saga of Brexit in the United Kingdom, as well as in republics, exemplified by the detrimental four years of the Trump presidency in the United States. Would the unfortunate episodes of Brexit and the Trump administration still have unfolded had both countries switched from one regime to the other? The answer should be self-evident; economic policies that either promulgate market-preserving federalism or foster patronage preservation can be found among either monarchies or republics.

Limited policy implications can nonetheless be drawn from the British monarchy, which served as a good executive powerholding constraint given the obvious and intricate path-dependence involved in the process of institutional discovery. Part of the answer may be sought in counterfactual analysis. One of the obvious candidates to study is the case of Ireland, which had been subject to British control until mid-twentieth century. Given that Ireland used to be described as the poorest of the rich by The Economist—and it today boasts one of the highest levels of per capita GDP worldwide, performing exceptionally well on several metrics of inclusive social and economic development—it remains unclear whether a British republic would encounter slower growth and a reduced standard of living compared to the British monarchy.


[1] The only remarkable exception is the case of Spain where the transition to constitutional monarchy has been linked to the institutional failure of the second Spanish republic in 1930s as well as to the very specific nature of the 1970 transition from dictatorship to democracy.

The Conversation

Economic Performance Is a Second-Order Good

As with Vincent Geloso’s initial essay, I broadly agree with the argument of Mauro F. Guillén’s response. However, I have a serious problem with the way the argument is presented, and in addition I think that both this an the initial essay have a misplaced emphasis in their account of why ceremonial monarchy is to be welcomed, one that reveals a foundational assumption all too common among economists, but which I reject.

In the first place, I think Mauro’s case suffers from a fallacy of argument–the argument made does not demonstrate the case. The central element is the (correct) statement that most of the world’s wealthiest and most economically successful countries are monarchies. However, this by itself is not enough to establish a causal connection, and the mechanism by which the one (a political settlement involving a constitutional monarchy) leads to the other (economic flourishing) is not set out. There are a number of obvious rejoinders to the argument as it is made: firstly, there are examples of economically successful republics and, secondly, the correlation observed reflects not so much the political settlement as it does these countries’ geographical location. The great majority of the ceremonial monarchies in the argument are found in Europe, plus Japan, and these are parts of the world that are wealthy and fast-growing and have been so for some time. Regardless of how that geographical distribution is explained, we could equally conclude that ceremonial monarchy is in this case a consequence rather than a cause, as wealthy countries are more likely to have the kind of politics in which institutions such as a ceremonial monarchy survive or have popular support. Personally, I believe that argument to be false, for reasons that should become clear, but it is not enough to simply point to a correlation in order to refute it.

The substantive point is that if we look at the mechanism, as the lead essay starts to and this one hints at, there is a hidden variable that directly explains economic success over time, and the challenge is to connect that with the institution of ceremonial monarchy. The hidden variable is good governance, and there is a much stronger argument that good governance has a direct connection to economic performance. What though do we mean by good governance? This is not the same thing as small or limited government; even though a case can be made that large or extended government is less likely to display the quality of good governance, there are still many cases of good governance where the role and size of government are extensive and large. Good governance means the following: the practice of government is rule-bound and done in accordance with clear and known laws, so it is not arbitrary or unpredictable; political activities such as elections are conducted according to known and accepted rules and norms with the outcomes being accepted—there is a loyal opposition but not an insurgent one; government activities are not predatory or predation is minimized; clientelism and nepotism (which are human defaults from what history tells us) are minimized; public discourse and policy are concerned with the medium and longer term as well as the immediate; and there is general free discussion and a plurality of views, reflecting pluralism among the population.

The coherent argument is that a political order with a ceremonial monarchy is more likely to feature good governance and that, crucially, it is having a ceremonial monarchy that makes good governance more likely and more resilient to shocks. The claim is probabilistic (more likely) because of the existence of republics such as Switzerland that clearly enjoy good governance. This argument does attempt to show a mechanism or reason for ceremonial monarchies as a rule being economically successful, but that requires a further argument that good governance will tend to produce good economic outcomes: this, though, is much easier to make. There is also a complementary argument, looking at the cases of countries that do not have either ceremonial monarchies or good economic performance. The argument here is that revolutions and unstable or zero-sum politics will lead to bad governance, where the rule of law is weak, corruption and clientelism are widespread, and government is often predatory with much of the debate about who is to be preyed on and who is to be predator. This means that countries that have had revolutions or political upheavals in which monarchies have been overthrown (e.g. Greece, Iran, or Ethiopia) are more likely to have bad governance. The further argument is that monarchies that are not ceremonial and confined to the sacral power but in which the monarch has a lot of the effective power, are also likely to have poor governance, as the three examples just given all show. This is because of two factors: the problem of the hereditary principle throwing up unstable or incompetent rulers, whom you are then stuck with; and the lack of legitimacy for effective monarchs in the modern world, resulting in opposition to their existence and abrupt ruptures in politics. The only case where this would not apply would be the small number of countries where the monarchy commands overwhelming consent and support.

The interesting case is that of countries, usually post-colonial states, where monarchy has never existed or was abolished as a part of the independence process or exists but without constitutional recognition. Latin America and parts of the Greater Middle East illustrate the first case, much of Africa the second. In such states we frequently find that the political system as a whole lacks legitimacy and is fragile, as indicated by things such as frequent constitutional change and coups. In a polity of this kind because the system as a whole lacks legitimacy (which ceremonial monarchy and its sacral function helps to provide) the important idea and institution of a loyal opposition is weak or absent. This makes politics a very high-stakes all-or-nothing matter and the consequence is chronically unstable and corrupt politics. Brazil is a classic exception that tests the hypothesis because (unlike the former provinces of the Spanish Empire) it gained independence as a constitutional monarchy and remained one for a considerable time. Its politics was more orderly and the quality of governance higher under the monarchy than it has been since, illustrating the role a ceremonial monarchy can play. (Revealingly there is strong popular support for the restoration of the monarchy in that country).

So, the main point of the argument should be that ceremonial monarchy as part of a political settlement can play a central part in creating the preconditions for good governance in a way that revolutionary politics does not. Good governance in turn will generally lead to better economic performance. This though is the point where it is worth standing back and thinking about what it is that justifies making good governance a desired outcome and ceremonial monarchy a desirable institution because of the part it plays in that. Although good governance does appear to lead to better economic performance, this is not inevitable—there have been polities that were well-governed and with a good quality of life that nevertheless had low rates of economic growth. Overall, the range of economic performance among ceremonial monarchies is wide, even if mostly positive. Conversely, there are countries that have economic dynamism and growth despite poor quality governance—Nigeria is a classic example, but we could also point to contemporary China. The big point is that we should not justify or defend a type or form of political order primarily by its impact on economic performance. To do so gives economics a disproportionate and unwarranted importance. It also opens the way for arguments that authoritarian or tyrannical government is at least ok and maybe even desirable if it corresponds with economic growth and development. We can see this argument made about contemporary China and historically about Imperial Germany for example.

The primary end or goal should be good governance because of its consequences for human flourishing of all kinds, not only the economic. Superior economic performance should be (correctly) seen as a secondary or consequential benefit of stable and orderly politics and governance, and the key argument is that ceremonial monarchy encourages good governance, not that it encourages the second-order good of economic growth. The benefits of having a ceremonial monarch to exercise the sacral power are not reducible to consequential and second-order goods such as economic performance; we should rather focus on the benefits it can bring for the political order itself.

Is a Ceremonial Monarchy Only a Survival?

A shared feature of the other contributions to this discussion is that they all think that in the modern world ceremonial monarchies are survivals. That is, they are instances where something once widespread has survived in a small number of places, mainly by adaptation. In a term derived from zoology they are relicts, the scattered remains of a once widespread or dominant political species. The underlying, and unexamined, idea is that they have survived a process of change that has come to affect the entire world and that this change has the qualities of inevitability, unidirectionality, and irreversibility. Quite simply, there is no good reason for thinking this. This is an instance of one of the most pervasive myths or ways of thinking of modern times, the myth of progress. Progress is understood in the myth as being a process of change with the three qualities mentioned and with the additional element that this is change for the better or (often) movement towards a particular end-state, one that is universal, permanent, and the best that can be hoped for. There is actually much evidence against this way of thinking and it should be seen as a mythical or religious mode of thought (I would argue that it is in fact a secularized version of the Christian account of history first articulated by Saint Augustine). In this context the idea is that monarchy is one of the casualties of progress but also for some that we should cherish the relict survivors because they are harmless and bring economic benefits.

There are several reasons why this picture is flawed. The foundational one for me is that it is a specific case of a wider idea about history, which I fundamentally reject. That is that although history may have its eddies and backwaters it has ultimately a unidirectional quality, the course of history moves in one direction and towards a single end. I am as strong a proponent and fan of the way the world has changed in the last two hundred years as anyone, but I think it a serious error to see it as the result of an ultimately inescapable process–not least because of the complacency that this view can lead to. This idea of history is one held by both liberals and socialists of all varieties in both cases. Conservatives also mostly adhere to it but often see the process in darker terms with the present and past viewed through the lens of nostalgia, the dark twin of progress (in the nostalgic vision there is also a process of change that is inevitable, unidirectional, and irreversible, but it is seen as bad or regrettable). I do not have the space here to explain why I object to this view of history (it is my central reason for rejecting Marxism) but in this context it is inaccurate to think that ceremonial monarchy is simply and inevitably a feature of the past because of something called progress.

Apart from reasons to do with the philosophy of history, there are practical reasons, supported by history, for taking a different view. The argument implicit in my co-authors’ essays is that we should keep the surviving ceremonial monarchies but not look to or hope for increasing their number. No country looking to found a new political order and drawing up a constitution should consider moving to or reviving a ceremonial monarchy (for example in the case of an ex-colonial country or one that has escaped foreign occupation or achieved independence through secession). This appears to be taken for granted as obvious.

That though is a comparatively recent way of thinking. Well into the twentieth century, countries in that situation would become monarchies. Sometimes this was done by reviving an indigenous monarchy and dynasty after an interval–Spain being an example of that as recently as 1975. A common practice in Europe was for a newly independent country to import a royal family from elsewhere, usually Germany (at one time royalty was a major German export, along with things such as steel and machine tools). This was done in the territories that gained independence from the Ottoman Empire, such as Bulgaria and Romania, and it survived until the advent of communism. (More recently the ex-Tsar of Bulgaria was the elected Prime Minister there, under the name of Mr. Sakskoburggotski). It was also done in Norway after the independence from Sweden in 1905 following a referendum, and there the monarchy very much survives to this day. There were moves to create monarchies in places such as Finland and the Banat after World War I, and these failed mainly because of opposition from the United States. In the African case of the three High Commission Territories of Bechuanaland, Basutoland, and Swaziland two went down the route of reviving the indigenous monarchy rather than becoming republics (Lesotho and Eswatini). The third, Bechuanaland, became nominally a republic, but for the majority of the time since independence the president has come from one of the indigenous royal families (the Khama family in this case). A similar instance of preserving and making use of an indigenous monarchy (in fact several) is Malaysia.

There is no inherent reason why this should not happen now, and there are sizeable movements for the restoration of monarchy in a number of states in different parts of the world. The practical difficulty of course is a widespread prejudice against monarchy and particularly hereditary monarchy, even in a ceremonial form. This is particularly pronounced among intellectuals and what we may call the political class. However, it would be a mistake to think that this way of thinking is permanent. The history of the last two centuries has shown many sudden switches of opinion, where views once considered retrograde and backward have suddenly become hip and progressive, while ones that were part of the progressive world view (such as eugenics for example) have been abruptly consigned to the darkness. We should not assume that we will not return to the more favorable view of ceremonial monarchy found in the years before 1945.

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.

Why the Sacral Still Matters

One of the arguments I have put in my contributions is that in thinking about government and governance, one should distinguish between the sacral or ritual aspect and the efficient or business one. The relevance of this distinction to the current discussion for me is that ceremonial monarchy is concerned only with the sacral and ritual or ceremonial aspect and not the business or efficient. Although contemporary European monarchies are the example most often given, the best example is Japan, where the role of the Emperor has been purely ceremonial for most of its very long history and with the business or effective side carried out by the Shogun or holders of other positions.

Not everyone accepts this distinction, to put it mildly. For some, the sacral function of monarchy is something vestigial, a political equivalent of the appendix. Others would have it that flummery and ritual and grand titles and forms of address are a species of mystification, intended to obscure and gloss the sordid realities of power. The widespread acceptance of these kinds of argument shows something important. Today political argument and philosophy has almost entirely lost sight of the sacral aspect of political power and government, and to the extent that it does take notice of it, regards the sacral as trivial and unimportant. This is a major departure from several of the world’s intellectual traditions and is also profoundly short-sighted. In Confucianism for example, ritual and ceremonial has a central place in political theory and practice. The same is true of most pre-modern political theory, never mind the practice.

In this, pre-modern political theory was closer to reality. The sacral is a persistent and important feature of collective human affairs and seems to derive from structural and fixed qualities of human nature. All political life in practice involves rituals and symbols, and these often have great power. We only need think for example of the place of the flag and other symbols of nationhood in American politics, or the importance of public ceremonials such as the public inauguration and swearing in of presidents. The form and details of these vary from one part of the world to another and often have a remarkable persistence over time. It is a delusion to think that government can be reduced to a combination of technocratic administration and media spectacle (which is what elections have largely become). The importance of both monarchy and long-established republican forms in this context is that they recognize and express this function of governance in a way that produces stability and continuity as well as development.

When this is denied, by attempts at revolution or abrupt modernization or political rupture, the result is not that political life is emptied of its sacral aspect. Rather it reappears but in monstrous or distorted form. The twentieth century gives many examples of this. Thus Stalin became a figure like the tsar for many Russians, complete with a symbolic role as father and guide of the people. In China, Mao took on many of the qualities and traditional features of an Emperor—in fact he self-consciously modelled himself on Chin Shih Huang-Ti the psychopathic megalomaniac who founded the Chinese Empire in 221 BC. In North Korea Kim Il Sung and his heirs have all of the ritual and symbolic qualities of the old Korean monarchs while also holding unchecked power—a truly bad combination.

All this raises two questions. Firstly, historically the sacral power was indeed often combined with the practical or effective, with the same person wielding both. This remains the case in presidential political systems with a separation of powers, such as the United States. In these cases, the sacral function can indeed lend a patina of legitimacy to the often sordid details of pragmatic politics, not least by giving some criticism a quality of lèse-majesté. The question is whether this is the default position. Certainly it was the commonest historically but there are enough exceptions, such as Japan, to suggest that it was not. A common qualification was to have all or a significant part of the sacral function performed by a religious figure with a secular ruler performing the business aspect—this was the case in Bhutan to give one example. There are many reasons for thinking that it is better to separate the two, and to leave the people performing the practical side of affairs to be seen for what they are and subject to criticism and (often) ridicule. George Orwell captured this when he argued that one reason why fascism had not caught on in the UK as compared to much of Continental Europe was that the power and the ceremonial pomp and glory were separated. The grand rituals were associated with a powerless old man in a gilded coach while the business of politics and government was carried on by boring men in badly fitting suits. In other words, the dangerous combination of actual power and charismatic or sacred power was avoided. His argument also applied to other established constitutional monarchies, such as the Scandinavian ones and those of Belgium and the Netherlands, which did all indeed resist the lure of fascism and communism.

The other question is the interesting one for a historian of why contemporary political thought takes so little notice of the sacral aspect of government. Undoubtedly part of the explanation lies in the decline of religious thinking and of explicit religion or religious tradition as the public doctrine of the state. Another reason is the growth over the course of the twentieth century of a technocratic or instrumental mindset which sees the sacral as merely superstitious and unnecessary. That though does pose the question of where that contemporary mindset has come from and how it has come to be so powerful and pervasive. This is a fertile field for historical enquiry.