The Moral Equivalent of Monarchy

Matt Yglesias plumps for monarchy, based on – what else? – human nature:

[I]t seems inevitable in any country for some individual to end up serving the functional role of the king. Humans are hierarchical primates by nature and have a kind of fascination with power and dignity. This is somewhat inevitable, but it also cuts against the grain of a democracy. And under constitutional monarchy, you can mitigate the harm posed by displacing the mystique of power onto the powerless monarch. We follow the royal family with fascination, they participate in weird ceremonies, they have dignity, they symbolize the nation, we all talk about them respectfully, etc. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister gets to be just another politician. Admittedly the one who’s most important at this given moment in time. But that’s no reason not to jeer at him during Question Time. He’s not the symbol of the nation who’s owed deference. He’s a servant of the people and people who feel he’s serving them poorly should say so.

Dignity and power?

Dignity, sure. I admit, I am fascinated by dignity. I delight when formerly servile people regain it. I love, without apology, the dignity of being an American, under which our “weird ceremonies” happen chiefly of our own volition. I love the dignity of the immigrant shopkeeper – she might not have much, but what she has is hers, she’s worked for it, and she knows it. I love the dignity of a good book, a well-baked loaf of bread, or Dvořák’s Ninth. I love the dignity of suburbia, and of bohemia. I’ve known them both, and what they have in common is this – large stretches of time in which you are left to your own devices. That’s dignity.

But power? In a wide swath all around it, power destroys dignity. That’s not just an unfortunate side-effect. That’s the whole point of power. That’s what it does. It’s telling that Yglesias manages to praise power unstintingly – but only among a group of preposterous twits who’ve long ago stopped wielding any significant power themselves. Except, evidently, the power to fascinate the power-hungry.

Is it human nature to love power? Maybe for some. Indeed, I could hardly explain otherwise the continued presence of coercion in the world. Thinkers far greater than I have come to the same conclusion, so let’s just leave it at that.

Not everyone, though, is quite so keen on power. As Ravi Iyer, Jonathan Haidt, et al. have recently suggested, one self-identified group – libertarians – has a high degree of skepticism regarding authority, tradition, and conformity. Self-described libertarians place a high value on individualism, personal choice, and reason, even sometimes at the expense of other values, like emotion or community. In short, when we see a king, we don’t say “Wow!” We say – “Why?”

Even if you’re not a libertarian, it’s probably a good thing that someone is out there asking that question for you. That’s particularly so if Yglesias is right, and if most humans are hard-wired to idolize. Even a few false idols can be pretty costly. Having people around who encourage us to see them can do us a lot of good in the long run.

As I’m sure I don’t have to point out, the mistrust of kings, of those so-called gods on earth, runs deep in the American tradition. As Thomas Jefferson put it:

[T]he mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of god.

Modern science is increasingly finding that humans aren’t equal in a positive, descriptive sense. You and I are emphatically and obviously quite different, from the genetic level on up. Modern political experiments have shown that we should not try to make ourselves materially equal by rearranging society, either. The results of all such projects have been atrocities.

But claims about human equality really do shine in one area. They say, as Jefferson did, that your notions of the superior man are probably delusions, and that we should be aware of our embarrassing tendency toward them. Personally, I’d no more bow to the queen of England than I would to the doorman at the Ritz-Carlton. They both have fancy clothes, and a retinue of servants attending them, and time-honored traditions that they uphold. Bully for them. But also for our power to place them, at least once in a while, on the same level.