Ryan McMaken – September 18, 2022
With the impending burial of the United Kingdom’s Queen Elizabeth II, republicans from London to Sydney have ramped up their efforts to end the British monarchy. The resulting war of words between monarchists and their opponents has highlighted the sheer diversity of opinions over the desirability of monarchy. Indeed, it would be impossible to enumerate all the different criteria on which different groups and individuals judge monarchy as an institution. However, for those of us who favor the ideology known as laissez-faire liberalism—also known as “classical” liberalism or libertarianism—a fundamental question we must ask ourselves in judging monarchies is whether or not they are useful in limiting state power.
This is not a new question, and fortunately the question has already been addressed by the nineteenth-century Belgian-born French liberal Gustave de Molinari. Molinari is known today as an early proponent of truly radical laissez-faire, all the way to privatizing the military functions of states.
He favored neither monarchy nor republicanism on principle, and thus was willing to entertain any regime type so long as it could be used to limit the exercise of state power. In exploring this idea, Molinari did note that in cases where a monarchy is genuinely at odds with popular sentiment, the resulting “opposition of interests” can work as a brake on the expansion of state powers. Moreover, he suggested monarchs are also potentially more inclined than elected officials to engage in long-term thinking when it comes to the stewardship of a polity’s resources. These benefits are not due to any additional virtue or self-restraint on the part of monarchs, but are simply by-products of the public recognition that the relationship between ruler and ruled is fundamentally exploitative.
Molinari on “the Old System”
For Molinari, a chief benefit of monarchy is that monarchs are likely to take a long-term view of the viability of the government institutions under their control. In his 1899 book The Society of Tomorrow, Molinari explains:
Under the old system the political establishment, or the State, was the perpetual property of that association of strong men who had founded, or conquered, it. The members of this association, from the head downwards, succeeded by hereditary prescription to that part of the common territory which had fallen to their share at the original partition, and to the exercise of those functions which were attached to their several holdings. Sentiments of family and property, the strongest incentives known to the human race, combined to influence their action. They desired to leave to their descendants a heritage which should be neither less in extent nor inferior in condition to that which they had received from their fathers, and to maintain this ideal the power and resources of the State must be increased, or at least maintained in all their integrity.
According to Molinari, this way of thinking imposed a sort of fiscal conservatism on monarchs, who feared that imprudent extension of state prerogatives and responsibilities would imperil the economic soundness of their regime. Specifically, policies that brought about the economic ruin of the general population would also spell the ruin of the monarchy itself. Molinari writes:
There was also a fiscal limit to the imposts which they exacted from their subjects, any overstepping of which involved personal loss, often personal danger. If they abused their sovereign power as possessors, whether by exhausting the taxable potentiality of the population or by squandering the product of an impost which had become excessive, their State fell into poverty and decay, and they themselves lay at the mercy of rivals who were only too alert and ready to seize any opportunity of enrichment at the expense of the decadent or defenceless.
As Molinari notes, economic and financial missteps could lead not only to bankruptcy, but to total destruction of the regime at the hands of rival princes. But foreign rivals were not the only powers that might end a monarch’s dynasty. Should the monarch excessively antagonize “the governed,” they might also apply their own pressure against the monarch through rebellion:
The governed were able to check any abuse of sovereign power on the part of government through the pressure which was exerted on the ruler by his hope of transmitting his power to his children, and by that form of competition which constituted the State of War.
It is important to note that Molinari was no naïve ideologue who entertained flights of fancy about the imagined “good old days” of monarchy. His writings make it clear Molinari was well acquainted with the bloody realities of military conquest, and the means by which monarchs in ages past had consolidated political power. He nonetheless concluded that monarchy theoretically could—by accident—act as a restraint on state power. This was simply by virtue of the fact that in practice those who were subject to a monarch were suspicious of their rulers and did not regard the interests of the people to be synonymous with those of the dynasty. Rather, in Molinari’s view, “the governed” accepted monarchs simply as a utilitarian instrument of staving off foreign invasion and violent disorder. At the same time, this instrument was to be viewed with substantial alarm whenever it attempted to exert its influence beyond its specific remit.
The Problem with Popular Government
Molinari contends that whatever benefit might have been gained from this arrangement between ruler and ruled was abolished by the advent of popular government.
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The embrace of popular government was in conflict with earlier thinking in which coercive government institutions were identified with the monarch’s regime alone, and as such represented a threatening and competing power in opposition to the interests of the governed. As Molinari notes:
The chief feature which distinguishes the new order and separates it, in theory at least, from that which preceded it, is the transfer of the political establishment, of the State, to the people themselves. With it, naturally, passed that sovereign power which is inseparable from ownership of the domain and the subjects of the State.
This blurring of the lines between the rulers and the ruled meant views changed as to the purposes of the regime and the prerogatives by which the regime’s revenues—extracted, of course, from the taxpayers—might be used. Thus, the exercise of regime power was no longer a focus of the public’s suspicion, but now was subject to loud public demands for ever greater spending in accordance with the supposed general will. Molinari explains how this was magnified by competition between political parties, which extended their own power by promising the public a share of the revenues:
These associations, or political parties, are actual armies which have been trained to pursue power; their immediate objective is to so increase the number of their adherents as to control an electoral majority. Influential electors are for this purpose promised such or such share in the profits which will follow success, but such promises—generally place or privilege—are redeemable only by a multiplication of “places,” which involves a corresponding increase of national enterprises, whether of war or of peace. It is nothing to a politician that the result is increased charges and heavier drains on the vital energy of the people. The unceasing competition under which they labour, first in their efforts to secure office, and next to maintain their position, compels them to make party interest their sole care, and they are in no position to consider whether this personal and immediate interest is in harmony with the general and permanent good of the nation.
This state of affairs was also characterized by a shift from long-term interests under the old system—i.e., the interests of a multigenerational dynasty—toward short-term interests. This was due to the fact that “the theorists of the new order” substituted “temporary for permanent attribution of the sovereign power.”
Ultimately, all this combined to “aggravat[e] the opposition of interests which it was [elected governments’] pretended purpose to co-ordinate.” These changes also “weakened, if they did not actually destroy, the sole agency which has any real power to restrain governments.”
The Problem with Constitutional Monarchy
Molinari was also careful to show that constitutional monarchy was not to be confused with the older form. Much of Molinari’s career in France had coincided with the constitutional monarchy of Louis Philippe who oversaw substantial growth in the powers of the French state. The experience no doubt also helped solidify Molinari’s recognition of the fact that constitutional monarchies are functionally indistinguishable from constitutional republics. The constitutional monarch, rather, supports the popular elements of the regime by offering additional support for the elected ministers. Molinari explains:
In a constitutional monarchy the chief office in the State remained subject to hereditary transmission, but its occupant was declared irresponsible and his action was limited to the sole function of nominating, as responsible minister, the man chosen by the majority of the national representatives.
In other words, the constitutional monarch is essentially a mere servant of the popular regime, and as such offers no true counterbalance to the alleged national will.
What Type of Monarchy Actually Restrains the State?
For Molinari, then, monarchy is only useful when it is seen as remote from the will of the people, and thoroughly distinct from the nonstate portion of the polity that the liberals called “society.” Under these conditions, society—from which the monarch extracts resources—is inclined to jealously guard its own liberties and prerogatives in the face of monarchical power.
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Molinari, however, no doubt understood that the possibility of encountering this sort of relationship between ruler and ruled in the nineteenth century was remote at best. Yet by describing monarchical regimes in these terms, Molinari helps to illustrate the dangers posed by popular government. The ideas underlying popular ideologies like nationalism, democracy, and republicanism suggested that there was no fundamental difference between state interests and the interests of those from whom the state extracts resources. As a trenchant critic of states of all kinds, Molinari knew this was a grave error. There is always a relationship of exploitation between the state and those over whom the state rules. The decline of monarchy has done nothing to abolish this grim reality.
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Originally published at Mises.org. Ryan McMaken is a senior editor at the Mises Institute. He has a bachelor’s degree in economics and a master’s degree in public policy and international relations from the University of Colorado. He was a housing economist for the State of Colorado. He is the author of Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.
Image source: image of King Louis-Philippe of France (1834) via Wikimedia