The Kings Never Smile

Today I was sent an interesting scholarly essay on kingship that compares two contemporary monarchs, Juan Carlos of Spain and Bhomipol of Thailand [1]. The essay argues rather convincingly that both personal and structural elements are at the base of why Juan Carlos became a democratic king who is personally popular as a neutral head of state in a nation where monarchy has had an uneasy position for at least two centuries. Similarly, these same elements are at the base of why King Bhomipol of Thailand has based his legitimacy on a heathen sacramental divine-right monarchy, seeking to be personally popular in a nation where civil and military leadership is seen as corrupt and where growing populism has undermined the popularity of elites in the eyes of the masses.

Let us ask ourselves several questions. Why are both kings viewed as not being particularly happy? For one, the responsibilities of power and the tensions of preserving power in the face of insecurity can make melancholy fatalists of the most sanguine of men. Uneasy lies the head who wears a crown. Ironically enough, the greater insecurity of the structural elements of the Spanish monarchy made it easier (perhaps even necessary) for Juan Carlos to legitimize his position as a democratic monarch, while the position of reactionary advisers and a less clear conceptual division between monarchy and a republican option in Thailand encouraged a monarchy that looked back to Ayutthaya for legitimacy [2] rather than seeking that legitimacy in answering the needs and concerns of the common people. In contrast, the greater personal security of Juan Carlos has allowed him to make an apology for his misdeeds to the people and seek forgiveness, while such an option would be unthinkable for the intensely face-conscious Thai monarchy.

What common threats do both monarchies share? For one, both monarchies are in countries that have a reputation for being backwards, deeply religious, and immune to democracy by virtue of their cultural qualities. Both nations have a long history of political instability with persistent problems with weak republics and frequent dictatorships. In addition, the monarchies of both nations are far more personally popular than institutionally popular. This presents problems of succession in that each monarch must prove themselves to the people anew, with grave difficulties in gaining legitimacy from previous rulers. The need for each generation to prove themselves as a good kings over and over again is a great way to keep monarchs humble and honest and more devoted to serving the people, which is necessary to provide some kind of legitimate rulership. The structural insecurity of rulers is the price one must pay for the safety and freedom of the people, but we do not want leaders who are so
personally insecure that they oppress the people to achieve their own safety and peace of mind. As in so many areas, there is a delicate balance to be maintained.

So, what is the value and worth of a constitutional monarchy? Some of us, like myself, are rather hostile to elites and hierarchies and monarchs on principle. That said, there is a place for a constitutional monarch as a stable face to the outside world and as a fair arbiter for deeply divided states in times of crisis. Ironically, monarchs are best served (and most widely popular and legitimate) when they have the least political power, in that they provide a fairly inexpensive bit of glamor for citizens and tourists (the British monarchy costs less than a pound per citizen per year, a solid and inexpensive investment), they provide a sense of permanence and stability which makes a people more aware of history while also providing someone who is beyond the political fray and able to provide common ground among different political worldviews. That power and legitimacy depend on constitutional monarchs remaining content to have the illusion of power without the reality, as well as have the reality of a good moral example to set for their people and provide as a face for that nation to the world at large. And that is a worthy position of value even for a fiercely egalitarian person like myself.

So, even if a monarch in these days has little cause to smile, there is a great benefit in engaging in comparative history. For one, since human nature as well as global trends are present across cultures, we do better when we are able to compare different societies and people both to understand what is common to humanity as well as what is distinctive within culture and historical situation, allowing us to better appreciate variety without assuming that the same trends and pressures do not apply because of supposedly unique cultures that are immune to change. For another, kings face grave insecurities that can inspire them to become better people and better leaders or ruin them, depending both on the severity of their situations as well as the strength (or lack thereof) of their character and the training they received from parents and mentors. In addition, the value of monarchies lies not in their supposed divine right to rule, but in their ability to provide a sense of history and a source of stability in turbulent times, as well as a pretty face to the outside world (for little cost to the people and tourism revenue), and a neutral arbiter in times of political crisis. Few would deny that we face such times of crisis around the world. Do we have the leaders who are able to rise above our problems, show themselves humble to God, and seek the best interests of all their people?



About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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1 Response to The Kings Never Smile

  1. Pingback: Bigger Than Any One Man | Edge Induced Cohesion

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