Kings and Tyrants

 by Michael C. Dorf

[N.B.: Below is an essay inspired by the coronation of King Charles III. Meanwhile, my latest Verdict column addresses the unrelated subject of . . . wait for it . . . wait for it . . . no surprise here: the debt ceiling. In particular, I offer a speculative (and partly tongue-in-cheek) account of how President Biden's meeting with Speaker McCarthy and Minority Leader McConnell might go tomorrow. Speaking of the debt ceiling, in yesterday's New York Times, Prof Laurence Tribe wrote an op-ed explaining how he came to abandon his prior view and adopt what is essentially the Buchanan/Dorf view that absent new legislation raising or suspending the debt ceiling, Biden should issue new bonds anyway as the least unconstitutional option. His essay links our first Columbia Law Review article on the topic, which he describes as "the most insightful literature" on the subject. Okay, now onto the coronation.]

The American history I learned in elementary school in the 1970s was not exactly nuanced. It omitted a great deal and included all sorts of oversimplifications and outright falsehoods that enterprises like the 1619 Project seek to correct (albeit not entirely accurately itself). In the ensuing years, I've sought to fill in the gaps and come to a better understanding. Even so, I have held onto one fundamental truth I learned in elementary school: Americans don't need or want a king. The fascination some of my fellow Americans have with the British royals has always struck me as vaguely unpatriotic. Thus, I didn't watch much of the coronation ceremony of King Charles III. 

Having established my anti-monarchical bona fides, I want to say a couple of words in favor of hereditary monarchy as against non-hereditary systems for undemocratic selection of the head of state.

Let's begin with the obvious. Charles III is undoubtedly not the most beloved monarch, but if you had a choice between living under the rule of Charles or the various tyrants who exercise power around the world, surely you would choose Charles over the likes of Putin, Kim Jong Un, or Assad. And not just because those other guys have real power but Charles doesn't. Power corrupts, sure, but the unsubstantiated theory that Charles had Diana killed is implausible because it seems completely out of character. It is nearly impossible to imagine that if Charles had the authority of Henry VIII he would use it to murder civilians or wage or threaten aggressive war. At most, he might overzealously regulate architecture.

That's not entirely accidental. A system of tyrannical government in which the leader must seize power selects for the most ruthless leaders. It's not simply a coincidence that the heads of undemocratic authoritarian states so often appear to be psychopaths. That's a helpful trait for getting and holding the job. By contrast, unless the royal line carries a gene for psychopathy, the monarchs it produces will include a share of decent people--albeit ones whose extremely privileged upbringing will likely have encouraged more than a soupçon of overconfidence and difficulty empathizing with their subjects.

Am I saying that hereditary monarchs can't be vicious tyrants? No, of course not. From John at the end of the 12th century through Richard III at the end of the 15th, and beyond, England had its share of villainous kings. But note that a sizable chunk of their villainy involved murdering rivals for the throne. In a legal system in which murder stands as no obstacle to gaining and holding power, monarchy breeds paranoia and murder. However, that's not a feature of the official hereditariness of a regime. The tendency of Putin's rivals for power to end up poisoned is hardly atypical of what happens to anyone seen as a threat to the authority of non-hereditary tyrants. If you're a medieval king you might off your brothers and nephews but you don't feel your power threatened by people outside the line of succession. If you're Stalin, you kill off just about everybody with any power.

What about the fact that some of the worst regimes around the world are headed by what we might call de facto hereditary dictators? For a brief moment, some observers hoped that Bashar al Assad would be a reformer, but he ended up outdoing the brutality of his father. Meanwhile, since 1948, North Korea has been led only by three generations of the Kim dynasty. What are we to make of this phenomenon? 

I would argue that the tendency of nominally non-hereditary authoritarian regimes to become de facto hereditary monarchies shows the greater stability and perceived legitimacy of the latter. I've already touched on stability. Although hereditary monarchies (where the monarch has real power) can spark succession struggles, they are less prone to doing so than a system in which the death of a leader leaves the question of succession wide open. 

As to legitimacy, even authoritarian rulers are somewhat sensitive and thus vulnerable to public opinion. Bloodline confers legitimacy in all kinds of regimes. Consider that descendants and other relatives of former rulers have name recognition and other legitimacy-conferring advantages over political rivals even in democratic regimes. We have had numerous American dynasties: John and John Quincy Adams; William Henry and Benjamin Harrison; Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt (who were only very distantly related but whose names conjured a closer relation); John and (but for Sirhan Sirhan) perhaps Robert Kennedy; George H.W. and George W. Bush. And that's just with respect to the presidency. Numerous other examples abound at other levels of government, including the Tafts, Cuomos, Sununus, and many others. Family affiliation confers electoral advantage even when the former rulers were less than fully beloved. Bongbong Marcos anyone? If bloodline gives legitimacy in democratic countries (and it does), it also gives legitimacy in undemocratic regimes.

I've been comparing and contrasting (nominally or actually) non-hereditary authoritarian regimes with hereditary monarchies in which the monarch has real power. Of course, a constitutional monarchy in which the royal head of state is mostly a figurehead is superior to any kind of non-democratic regime. But there's an obvious additional alternative. How does a democratic system with a figurehead hereditary monarch compare with a republic?

Given the egalitarian aspirations of any legitimate democracy, it strikes me as nearly impossible to justify even a figurehead monarchy except for two considerations. First, the British royal family is arguably an economic boon via tourism and related business. Thus, for the Brits, the economic harm that could result from abolishing the monarchy counts as a reason to retain it. However, that doesn't explain why other countries retain the British monarch as official head of state. There are many reasons to visit Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the various countries of the Caribbean in which Charles is now King, but monarchy-related tourism is hardly one of them. Meanwhile it's difficult to imagine that many tourists who otherwise wouldn't visit an existing republic--Latvia, let's say--would do so if the country were to adopt a figurehead monarchy.

Second, there are times in history when a largely ceremonial monarch has performed an extremely useful function. Even after the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there was a risk that Japan would not have surrendered but for the intervention of Emperor Hirohito. King Juan Carlos was essential in transitioning Spain from Franco's dictatorship to democracy. They should be lauded for those actions--but that's not a reason to conclude that, other things being equal, a constitutional monarchy with a figurehead monarch is preferable to a republic. Those lessons in elementary school stuck with me.

Nonetheless, and in the spirit of the special relationship, I'll conclude by saying God save the King.