Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Why Do Monarchies Still Exist?

I once heard a political observer and historian explain how rapidly social structures across the globe changed following the American Revolution.

It had been generally accepted for millennia that some people were naturally born to be better than others. Although not intended at the outset, the revolution firmly established the concepts of human equality and individual value. (Quite imperfectly, of course.) Within a very short time, institutions that were dependent on the established Western caste system, such as deference to nobility and indentured servitude fell off sharply. First in the U.S., then in other Western nations, and later across many parts of the globe.

Having been raised in the U.S., I was surprised when I lived in Norway to discover that the nation's modern monarchy had been established in 1905 by popular vote. I wondered to myself why in the world Norwegians would choose a sovereign (whose position held little political power) at a time when monarchies were generally in decline. Countries that were keeping their monarchies were stripping them of power.

It turns out that on a continent that still boasts a dozen monarchies many Europeans still love monarchies. Slate writer Brian Palmer provides several reasons that some European countries have not jettisoned their monarchies while all the rest have:
  • Getting rid of a monarchy is an act of revolution, and few Western European nations have much stomach for that kind of thing at present.
  • "Royal families are apolitical symbols of national unity and, in ideal circumstances, sources of pride."
  • On rare occasions monarchs have intervened when the political process has gone too far afield.
  • Many Europeans have what Palmer calls "genuine affection" for their royals.
  • "Monarchs can be lucrative," especially when it comes to bringing in tourist money. 
  • Royals often act as goodwill ambassadors both domestically and in foreign affairs.
  • Some monarchies are not terribly expensive to maintain. "The British royal family ... costs the average taxpayer less than $1 per year...."
After nearly 400 years of being ruled as a vassal state, Norwegians likely chose a monarch in 1905 mainly for purposes of national unity. Still, it has always struck me as odd that they chose for king a Danish prince whose British wife (his first cousin) never learned to speak anything resembling Norwegian.

Although some monarchies do not cost each taxpayer much, the Wall Street Journal reports that the operation of royal households is not cheap. While different kingdoms calculate royal costs differently, the WSJ says that Norway (population 4.952 million) spends the most; a whopping €42.7 million ($55.9 million) annually. The U.K. (population 62.64 million) by contrast spends only €38 million ($49.7 million). Norway's neighbor Sweden (population 9.453 million) spends just over a third of what Norway spends (€15.1 million, $19.8 million).

The WSJ notes that "Republican governments aren't always cheaper. ... the office of the French president spends more than €110 million [$143.9 million] annually...." This may be true, but supposedly the French president has the job of running his nation's federal government, while most European monarchs are blissfully free of the burdens of actually governing.

Although close to 80% of Britons favor their queen, nearly as many think that the monarchy will be gone within the next quarter century. Palmer writes, "This suggests that Europeans envision a future without kings and queens but don't personally want to undertake the national convulsion that might accompany the change."

I have long thought that Europe's monarchies will eventually go by the wayside, despite the people's odd romantic attachment to these remnants of a bygone caste system. I suppose that just as Norway was the last one to the party in establishing a monarchy, it will hang onto its outmoded system after other royal houses are little more than past memories.

While I can academically understand the arguments in favor of maintaining monarchies, I'm afraid my American upbringing has rendered me incapable of valuing them in the way that some do. I have never understood the near worship of glitzy mortals, whether they hail from the Hollywood glamour set, are elected to their position, or happen to be born as members of royal houses.

Europeans living in monarchies appear to be slowly coming to agree that their royals must eventually go. Get your royal souvenirs while you still can.

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