Thursday, November 01, 2007

Libertarians and Monarchy

Devil's Kitchen and Peter Risdon are having a debate about the monarchy. First, can and should a libertarian be a monarchist? Second, should we adopt DK's particular plan for giving the monarchy 'hard' power within our constitution again?

I should qualify that I am not a libertarian so am writing about a doctrine not my own. While I still have relatively liberal views on many touchstone social issues, and always come up as a strict libertarian on the silly ideological tests, I am philosophically conservative. However, I still have a feel for libertarian thinking from my student days, I should be okay.

I find myself forced to write in abstention on this idea. Libertarians should be fundamentally unimpressed by the very question of how we choose our leaders.

Peter's notion that democracy is preferable because rights flow from the people is less than libertarian. People are the only ones who have rights in libertarian thinking but they have no rights over other people, whether they are alone or part of a group of a million. Libertarianism is at root sceptical of democracy and libertarians have often been at the front of opposition to its excesses. While I am not going to pretend that Ron Paul has the power to pronounce what libertarians should believe it is not a coincidence that he has been so hawkish on the constitution, itself a compromise with democracy. While, historically, limiting the power of the monarch has been essential to liberty that does not mean that, right now, monarchs contribute to the progress of illiberalism.

In the end, I don't see a libertarian answer to how we should be governed except "less". I think a Hayekian would prefer a decentralised democracy as it best brings in dispersed knowledge but Hayekians and libertarians are not, despite there being plenty of overlap, the same group.

So, I don't think there is a more or less libertarian form of government. Is DK's idea a good one anyway?

My own understanding of what makes the British monarchy so great is that it provides a figurehead for our law and tradition who is above politics. The only guard to real, crushing tyranny in Britain, or any country with or without a constitution, is that British people would find it morally and aesthetically repulsive. Constitutional 'rules' only help if people rally around them. Otherwise a majority or a disproportionately powerful minority will just break the rules.

Unfortunately a liberty-loving population is hard to maintain. A host of things from state dependency to terrorism to foreign attack to economic stagnation threaten it. You need the population of your liberal state to be both capable of living without state support and want to. You need to be able to provide credible security. Producing a decent society where people respect each other's freedoms, person and property is about as hard a policy challenge as they come. Getting it right is really rare and the system is under huge strain in the UK for a host of reasons. The monarchy is a powerful symbol of tradition and law that people rally round and that is not contaminated by distrust of politics. In troubled times getting rid of that would be quite a risk.

That's why I dislike the Devil's proposal to have the monarch veto bills that threaten a constitution and be dethroned if the people, through a referendum, decide that they have failed in that duty. By making the monarch one more wielder of temporal power he also makes them part of the political process. There's no way someone whose decisions we will debate over and can dethrone if we don't like their constitutional judgement can remain above politics. We will lose our monarchy and gain a sort of deformed supreme court. That is not an idea I could support.


Anonymous said...

These ideological tests so often seem designed by libertarians either in order to produce as many libertarians as possible, or unwittingly asking only the sort of questions that produce libertarian answers from most people.

Peter Risdon said...

A slight correction. I argue strongly in favour of a constitution that limits the power of the democratically elected government. Part of my argument against the monarchy is that a constitutional monarchy actually cements unlimited power - that of a monarch - at the centre of the political system and that not even a democratic parliament should wield unlimited power. So I argue for a democratic system limited by constitution - a republic.

I then argue that since libertarians believe we are the masters (sole owners, whatever) of our selves, we cannot hold ourselves to be subject to a monarch.

But I've got sidetracked from this debate by something I find more interesting - the way the radical political tradition has been hijacked and turned on its head by socialism.

Anonymous said...

good points all i think the truth is libertains per se has nothing to sya on this but there are philosophies whihc are liberarin that do

it's worth noting that just about all the excellent argumetns on the monarchy by matt are even stronger for a supreme court with US style powers- whihc we're slowly evolving towards EU wise and otherwise.