Hereditary monarchy vs. democracy

Andrew Cusack reproduces one of the more interesting things I’ve read in a while, on the difference between Muslim monarchies and “republics.” I think the author has a valid point, although he tends to ignore exceptions to his rule, such as the monarchy in Saudi Arabia, which makes the “republics” of the Middle East look liberal.

Along the same lines, GK Chesterton had some observations about hereditary monarchy and democracy in Heretics:

Next to a genuine republic, the most democratic thing in the world is a hereditary despotism. I mean a despotism in which there is absolutely no trace whatever of any nonsense about intellect or special fitness for the post. Rational despotism — that is, selective despotism — is always a curse to mankind, because with that you have the ordinary man misunderstood and misgoverned by some prig who has no brotherly respect for him at all. But irrational despotism is always democratic, because it is the ordinary man enthroned. The worst form of slavery is that which is called Caesarism, or the choice of some bold or brilliant man as despot because he is suitable. For that means that men choose a representative, not because he represents them, but because he does not. Men trust an ordinary man like George III or William IV. because they are themselves ordinary men and understand him. Men trust an ordinary man because they trust themselves. But men trust a great man because they do not trust themselves. And hence the worship of great men always appears in times of weakness and cowardice; we never hear of great men until the time when all other men are small.

Hereditary despotism is, then, in essence and sentiment democratic because it chooses from mankind at random. If it does not declare that every man may rule, it declares the next most democratic thing; it declares that any man may rule. Hereditary aristocracy is a far worse and more dangerous thing, because the numbers and multiplicity of an aristocracy make it sometimes possible for it to figure as an aristocracy of intellect. Some of its members will presumably have brains, and thus they, at any rate, will be an intellectual aristocracy within the social one. They will rule the aristocracy by virtue of their intellect, and they will rule the country by virtue of their aristocracy. Thus a double falsity will be set up, and millions of the images of God, who, fortunately for their wives and families, are neither gentlemen nor clever men, will be represented by a man like Mr. Balfour or Mr. Wyndham, because he is too gentlemanly to be called merely clever, and just too clever to be called merely a gentleman. But even an hereditary aristocracy may exhibit, by a sort of accident, from time to time some of the basically democratic quality which belongs to a hereditary despotism. It is amusing to think how much conservative ingenuity has been wasted in the defence of the House of Lords by men who were desperately endeavouring to prove that the House of Lords consisted of clever men. There is one really good defence of the House of Lords, though admirers of the peerage are strangely coy about using it; and that is, that the House of Lords, in its full and proper strength, consists of stupid men. It really would be a plausible defence of that otherwise indefensible body to point out that the clever men in the Commons, who owed their power to cleverness, ought in the last resort to be checked by the average man in the Lords, who owed their power to accident. Of course, there would be many answers to such a contention, as, for instance, that the House of Lords is largely no longer a House of Lords, but a House of tradesmen and financiers, or that the bulk of the commonplace nobility do not vote, and so leave the chamber to the prigs and the specialists and the mad old gentlemen with hobbies. But on some occasions the House of Lords, even under all these disadvantages, is in some sense representative. When all the peers flocked together to vote against Mr. Gladstone’s second Home Rule Bill, for instance, those who said that the peers represented the English people, were perfectly right. All those dear old men who happened to be born peers were at that moment, and upon that question, the precise counterpart of all the dear old men who happened to be born paupers or middle-class gentlemen. That mob of peers did really represent the English people — that is to say, it was honest, ignorant, vaguely excited, almost unanimous, and obviously wrong. Of course, rational democracy is better as an expression of the public will than the haphazard hereditary method. While we are about having any kind of democracy, let it be rational democracy. But if we are to have any kind of oligarchy, let it be irrational oligarchy. Then at least we shall be ruled by men.

But the thing which is really required for the proper working of democracy is not merely the democratic system, or even the democratic philosophy, but the democratic emotion. The democratic emotion, like most elementary and indispensable things, is a thing difficult to describe at any time. But it is peculiarly difficult to describe it in our enlightened age, for the simple reason that it is peculiarly difficult to find it. It is a certain instinctive attitude which feels the things in which all men agree to be unspeakably important, and all the things in which they differ (such as mere brains) to be almost unspeakably unimportant. The nearest approach to it in our ordinary life would be the promptitude with which we should consider mere humanity in any circumstance of shock or death. We should say, after a somewhat disturbing discovery, “There is a dead man under the sofa.” We should not be likely to say, “There is a dead man of considerable personal refinement under the sofa.” We should say, “A woman has fallen into the water.” We should not say, “A highly educated woman has fallen into the water.” Nobody would say, “There are the remains of a clear thinker in your back garden.” Nobody would say, “Unless you hurry up and stop him, a man with a very fine ear for music will have jumped off that cliff.” But this emotion, which all of us have in connection with such things as birth and death, is to some people native and constant at all ordinary times and in all ordinary places. It was native to St. Francis of Assisi. It was native to Walt Whitman. In this strange and splendid degree it cannot be expected, perhaps, to pervade a whole commonwealth or a whole civilization; but one commonwealth may have it much more than another commonwealth, one civilization much more than another civilization. No community, perhaps, ever had it so much as the early Franciscans. No community, perhaps, ever had it so little as ours.

I pondered over Chesterton’s ideas a few months back when I finally got around to reading Heretics. And, I think he’s right. If a nation’s people haven’t the proper attitude about how it is to be run, and instead start voting on things like mesmerizing oratory (or good hair), then democracy doesn’t work very well. The “best and the brightest” more often than not don’t “represent” well the interests of the common people. Marxists have a lovely intellectual scheme for the betterment of the human race; the only problem is, they don’t take into account human nature. The same could be said for the architects of “trickle-down economics,” which seems great in principle, but may end up only making the rich even richer. No, I think Chesterton is onto something. While hereditary monarchy is not “democratic” in the sense of the people being able to select their leaders, it certainly is “democratic” in the random nature of the person ruling. Monarchs, with exceptions of course, do not rule based on ideas, and not worrying about re-election, I suspect have a greater chance of acting on what is right rather than what is expedient. There is no perfect form of government here on earth, but the requirements for a successful democracy/republic are such that I can’t help wondering if we’d be better off with King George rather than President George…

(HT for Cusack’s article: Fr. Jim Tucker)

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4 Responses to “Hereditary monarchy vs. democracy”


  1. 1 Bekah August 7, 2006 at 10:24 pm

    It is highly unpopular to say so, but I believe our founding fathers were on to something when they initially allowed only landowners to vote. A landowner has an actual purchase in the direction of the country, and therefore, assumably, would make decisions based more upon what would be profitable for the country as a whole, which would also profit himself, rather than merely upon preferences. When we opened up the vote to everyone, our system began to decline rapidly. And we now face the fact that the minority have figured out how to manipulate the system to their advantage, rather than to the advantage of the whole country. I would much more favor the assisting of people to own land so they can vote rather than hand them an open vote (or two or three as in some cities today). It’s too bad that such a debate can never occur because it is ipso facto that a vote means equality under the law. I think the two issues are separate and should not have been confused.

  2. 2 Edmund C. August 8, 2006 at 2:30 pm

    While having voting tied to property might be one solution to the whim-based voting of today, I don’t know if it’s feasible or even desirable. Property owners are going to vote based on self-interest as well. And, that self-interest isn’t likely to include taking much account of those who do not own property.

  3. 3 Bekah August 8, 2006 at 5:28 pm

    “Property owners are going to vote based on self-interest as well.”

    That’s kinda the point. Everyone is going to make votes based on self-interest, but one who’s self-interest is tied into the well-being of the country is more likely to vote to the betterment of the country.


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