Monday, September 12, 2016

On Kings and the Accident of Birth

We live in an era with an extraordinarily limited imagination with respect to alternative worldviews.

In the eternal present tense of the liberal mind, the past is not only alien, but almost incomprehensible. Whig history gets imbibed deeply without even understanding what it is. The net effect is that nobody is encouraged to think honestly about why people in the past thought the things they did. Most strikingly, there is no empathy towards one’s ancestors as having genuinely-held beliefs which may have had sensible underpinnings. The only acceptable explanations are those that flatter our own conceit. So the mass of people in the past must either have been evil (by comparison with which we are virtuous), or they must have been na├»ve dupes who were conned by a small evil elite (by comparison with which we are savvy and worldly).

Unsurprisingly, these absurd narratives quickly run into large obstacles of incomprehension.

Take, for instance, the institution of monarchy.

Everyone who is anyone agrees that democracy is not only the most effective form of government, but the most just.

So why did absolute monarchy persist in so many countries, for so many thousands of years, if it was both unjust (and thus likely to inspire resistance) and ineffective (and thus able to be outcompeted by better forms of government)?

It’s a puzzle, no?

Let us grant something obvious, but not widely appreciated. A system of government that was able to rule France for 800 years, or rule England for similar period, must have had at least something quite significant to recommend about it. How else could it accomplish the task of administering huge countries for so long, with far weaker technologies of coordination, if it was marked only by injustice, incompetence and tyranny? Wouldn’t the people have risen up long before they did?

Here is another possibility that simply cannot be imagined by most people today.

Many absolute monarchs were genuinely popular.

Not because the people were duped. Not because they were afraid of expressing contrary opinions. Because the subjects genuinely liked their hereditary kings. Because these Kings did a good job of ruling. Not all, but many of them.

Such a possibility is highly confronting to modern sensibilities, but surely it must be considered as at least a hypothesis. The historical record is there - something kept them working for a very long time. If we can’t conceive of why kings might have been effective, perhaps this means that they weren’t effective, or perhaps we just have a failure of imagination.

I think part of the mistake comes from misunderstanding how kings came about.

When people think about an absolute monarch in a western country, they think about establishing a monarchy today. And since they don’t know how monarchs came to exist, they substitute the following hypothetical – we take a person in society, and given them absolute power.

Let us put aside for the moment the question of whether kings actually have absolute power.

Even before that, the natural question arises in the progressive mind: who gets to be king? And since this is purely a hypothetical, the answers cover an equally large range of hypothetical figures, namely everyone in society. Giving one randomly chosen person control of everything strikes them, somewhat understandably, as risky and ill-advised.

But kings were not randomly chosen people, and it simply doesn’t make sense to evaluate monarchy as if they were.

More importantly, the ways in which kings weren’t random redound strongly to their advantage.

Who is the king today in a monarchy? The son of the previous king. Phrased only like this, it presents a chicken and egg argument that doesn’t tell us much.

Rather, to get anywhere we need to understand the origins – who was the first king in any given lineage? This is the basis from which the rest stems.

The answer, nearly always, is a great military leader, a commander of men able to unite his people into an army, and successfully coordinate them in battle to subdue their previous rulers. Robert the Bruce became king of Scotland after a ten year period where Scotland had no king. At the Battle of Bannockburn, Robert the Bruce began the battle by fighting Henry de Bohun in single combat, killing him by splitting his head open with an axe. Robert then led the Scottish troops into battle. That doesn't sound like a randomly chosen level of valor, strength, and ability to lead men. 

If I were a Scot, besieged and ruled by the hated English, I would be pretty damn pleased to have such a man in charge of my country. The fact that he wasn't elected in a vote would not trouble me one jot.

When William the Conqueror fought the Battle of Hastings, he had to rally his fleeing troops, and led the successful counterattack against the English forces. Talk about courage and calmness under pressure.

In medieval battles it was very difficult to command an army without personal courage and skill. You don’t get to be miles behind the front line, picking up a telephone and giving orders. You will be in the fray, fighting alongside your soldiers, giving wise orders, and convincing people to obey them through your personal authority. If you're insufficiently good at that job, you're dead, like King Harold

A man that can command, inspire and make wise choices in war has at least a decent shot of doing the same thing in peace. At the barest minimum, he has a much better chance of doing so than a randomly chosen citizen at the time.

In the language of economics, Kings are endogenous. It makes no sense to ask what would happen if we elevated a random person to be king. The only person who would ever get to be the first king is someone with enough personal qualities to establish themselves as such.

The person who would have had the greatest opportunity to establish himself as King of America, should he have wanted to do so, was probably George Washington. He had to tell his subordinates to address him as ‘Mr President’, not ‘Your Highness’. His stepping down, rather than ruling on until he died or was voted out, was considered very surprising. King George III said that if Washington in fact returned to his farm and thus renounced power, it would make him the greatest man in the world. One suspects he did not expect to be called on this claim.

Admit it, the prospect of King George Washington is not an immediately frightening one,. And how did he get to have this level of popular support and gratitude? By bravery and military genius. He was an outstanding leader of men long before he won an election. 

In perhaps the most credible alternative universe where America had a monarch, it would not be Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.

It would be a descendant of George Washington.

So let’s establish that we’re reasonably happy with King Washington I. How might we feel about his descendants?

If behavioral genetics has taught us anything, it’s that nearly every personality and cognitive trait we care to measure has a significant degree of heritability. George Washington’s offspring will not be the same as George Washington, but they will share many of his traits simply due to genetics.

Not only that, but the environmental factors are also encouraging. The future kings are raised in an environment where they also get passed on to them all the cultural ideas and learning of the previous king, which again tends to reinforce the behaviours that worked the previous time. Moreover, prince regents have been apprenticed from a very young age to the task of ruling, learning the trade from those that came before. All of these factors tend to reinforce the behaviours of kings over time, and encourage whatever caused the first king to be successful to continue to be present in his successors.

But still, genetic advantages wane with mean reversion. This is the major weakness of monarchy. It also applies to family firms, where the brilliant entrepreneur is succeeded by his somewhat less successful son, and his hopeless wastrel grandson.

Acting against this, however, is an opposing force. Kings also tended to marry queens who were themselves descended from other successful bloodlines. This means that both sides of the family tree tend to be selected from people who displayed a capacity for leadership.

So we can’t even just evaluate a hypothetical King Washington X by looking at the current descendants of George Washington. The marriage patterns would likely be different, the education and training they received would be different, and thus so would the descendants themselves.

Does this mean that monarchy always worked brilliantly? No. Sometimes monarchs die before their children are ready to rule, or die without children, or have idiot worthless children. It's not perfect.

Does it mean that it almost certainly worked better than most people today imagine? Absolutely. We at least have an answer to our question at the start - why might  it have lasted so long?

Does it mean we should switch back to it? Your mileage may vary.

But don’t get this far and still ask the wrong question!

“We” will not switch back to monarchy.

Should America end up as a monarchy, it will be because a monarch worthy of the title of king has commanded the country and been elevated to the position.

And at that point, it will probably work pretty well.


  1. Russell Kirk described the Neo-cons as "often clever, never wise."

    1. Ha, that a great heckle, and very apt. Though I might be wrong, I suspect your comment might have been intended for this post instead.

  2. Which means that we won't have a king until there's some combination of economic collapse, anarchy, civil war, warring-states period, and possibly a dark age. England fell into chaos when the Romans left, and would not be united under one king for 500 years, during which most of its population was replaced in several waves of foreign invasion.

    1. Yep, that's my suspicion too. The s*** will really have to hit the fan before an actual king emerges, because otherwise there's not enough of a pressing need for people to unite around a strong leader who's able to prove his competence. I also think that the form of competence most likely to produce a monarch is military leadership, since this is the setting where absolute obedience to authority is a natural norm (which might then get expanded to the rest of society).