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When Prince William married Kate Middleton in 2011, I went to a wedding watch party with my American wife and two friends from the Irish Republic. All three of them were much more excited about the royal nuptials than I, the only Brit. Were George Washington and Michael Collins wasting their time? Tomorrow’s wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle is my first as a resident in the US, and there seems to be a fair degree of interest in it here.
In British terms, I used to be a ‘republican’, which means favoring the abolition of the monarchy and its replacement with an elected head of state. On a logical level, I suppose I still am. The thought that our head of state is chosen by random acts of birth is an affront to our sense of reason; can we really not come up with a better system? As Frank Drebin said in The Naked Gun, the idea of having a king or queen is “silly”.
At this point in the debate, British republicans will usually call on the historian Edward Gibbon. In his classic Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, he wrote
Of the various forms of government, which have prevailed in the world, an hereditary monarchy seems to present the fairest scope for ridicule. Is it possible to relate, without an indignant smile, that, on the father’s decease, the property of a nation, like that of a drove of oxen, descends to his infant son, as yet unknown to mankind and to himself; and that the bravest warriors and the wisest statesmen, relinquishing their natural right to empire, approach the royal cradle with bended knees and protestations of inviolable fidelity?
But if they read on, they’d find that Gibbon’s position is quite the opposite of what this suggests.
In the cool shade of retirement, we may easily devise imaginary forms of government, in which the sceptre shall be constantly bestowed on the most worthy, by the free and incorrupt suffrage of the whole community. Experience overturns these airy fabrics, and teaches us, that in a large society, the election of a monarch can never devolve to the wisest, or to the most numerous, part of the people.
Gibbon was writing in the 1770s and today we might look at this as anti-democratic claptrap. But the important point here is that of experience vs imagination exercised in “the cool shade of retirement.” Whereas the utopians of Gibbon’s day were full of schemes to destroy the monarchy and erect something perfect, Gibbon’s study of history led him to be cautious of such change. He looked at the latter days of the Roman Empire and saw the succession of murdered emperors, power grabs, coups, and civil wars, and thought the hereditary principle a crucial bulwark against that. His skepticism of democracy might have been misplaced, but his caution in the face of revolutionary change remains valid.
This brings us to modern conservatism. William F. Buckley famously said that conservatism “stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.” This might be a bit much, after all, the American Revolution was just the sort of change Gibbon might have balked at. But the conservative certainly occupies a valuable place if he or she stands athwart history, yelling Hang on a minute. There is, as Gibbon shows, a value in the lessons of experience. They might well be telling us what not to do, but they might also warn us against certain mistakes. There is also a limit to our ability to reason everything from first principles. There are limits to our knowledge, for one.
So conservatism, at least in one sense, is a skepticism of revolutionary change. When we look at how the utopias of the 20th century played out in the Gulags of the Soviet Union or the Killing Fields of Cambodia, this seems valuable. And when you have one of the most successful social arrangements in the world – which the United States is – proposals to alter it radically ought to be set a pretty high bar to clear.
So I find myself, increasingly, a monarchist out of skepticism of the grand schemes for an alternative dreamed up in the “cool shade of retirement”. Sure, if you were designing a country from scratch we probably wouldn’t make it a monarchy. But there are few clean slates in real life. With the greatest respect to my adopted country, when I consider the possibility of an elected head of state, the hereditary principle works well enough, as silly as it seems, not to warrant the disruption of ditching it.
That’s as close to an endorsement as the Windsors will get from me, unless I start blubbing during the service tomorrow.
John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment.