I’ve written a bit from time to time about presidential versus parliamentary systems, and about direct versus indirect presidential elections. No system is perfect, but my view is that a parliamentary system with an indirectly elected president tends to do a better job than the available alternatives.

This week at the Conversation, however, Dennis Altman advances what he calls the “radical thought” that constitutional monarchy may be a better bet for preserving liberal democracy:

It is tempting to dismiss the whole concept of monarchy as an absurd and offensive relic of feudalism, and the panoply that surrounds monarchy is indeed ludicrous. …

But, on balance, those countries that have developed constitutional monarchies rank among the most democratic and egalitarian: the Scandinavian and Benelux states all have hereditary heads of state.

Altman’s progressive credentials are impeccable, but his is by no means an isolated view. As democracy seems more and more embattled, much of the usual criticism of monarchy has gone quiet.

At the beginning of this year, the New York Times reported on a study (since published in the journal Social Forces) that found, according to its authors, “strong evidence that monarchies contribute to a greater protection of property rights and higher standards of living through each of the three theoretical mechanisms compared to all republics.”

There’s no doubt that the monarchies of north-western Europe are a generally successful lot. But the claim that monarchy is the key variable strikes me as a bit shaky. For example, trying to compare like with like as much as possible, think about the following pairs – in each case, monarchy then republic:

  • Spain vs Portugal
  • Sweden vs Finland
  • Norway vs Iceland
  • Japan vs South Korea
  • Netherlands vs Germany
  • United Kingdom vs Ireland
  • Jamaica vs Trinidad & Tobago
  • Belize vs Guyana

It’s hard to see much advantage either way there; the republics are at least holding their own. By contrast, there are cases in the developing world where monarchy does look to have an advantage:

  • Jordan vs Syria
  • Thailand vs Burma/Myanmar
  • Oman vs Yemen
  • Morocco vs Algeria

And there are many areas where democracy is under a degree of stress – central Europe, the Balkans, South Asia*, West Africa – where there just aren’t any monarchies to make the comparison.

Now, that might mean that monarchy would do better in those places if it was tried. But it might also mean that where conditions are more difficult, monarchies are less likely to survive in the first place. In other words, there’s a selection effect going on: the only monarchies in our comparison set are the ones with favorable circumstances or other advantages to help them survive. The ones that didn’t are no longer there to study.

So the fact that existing monarchies have a pretty good record is not much use to a country that is thinking about establishing one. Might it caution, however, against getting rid of monarchy where it currently exists – such as in Australia?

I think a certain amount of caution about changing constitutional arrangements is always warranted. And any discussion about actually making such a change here quickly runs into other issues, both practical and symbolic, that are quite separate from the basic question of monarchy versus republic.

For example, one of the chief motivating factors for republicans in Australia seems to the fact that our head of state is a foreigner. But we don’t need a republic to solve that; if we wanted to, we could create our own home-grown monarchy. (Or, conversely, we could elect a foreigner as president.)

Britain, and therefore Australia, have had a good run of luck recently with monarchs. Nonetheless, it remains true that in the long run hereditary succession is not a good way to produce able or conscientious rulers. A short reading course in the history of monarchy should be enough to disabuse anyone of that notion.

There are real advantages to monarchy; Altman cites Bagehot on “the advantage of separating ‘dignified’ and ‘efficient’ power.” But there are costs too, even when it is functioning well: the symbolic affront that it gives to democracy, and the implicit endorsement of artificial hierarchies, send a message that the world can do without.

I agree that we could do a lot worse than our existing system, and changing it would not be one of my top priorities. There are other things we should be doing to defend democracy. But we shouldn’t delude ourselves that a hereditary head of state will be much help.


* Strictly speaking there is one monarchy, Bhutan, remaining in South Asia, but it is too small and remote to really compare with anything else in the region.

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