Since last night, I have seen a variety of news articles about the abdication of Juan Carlos, king of Spain , so that his son may take over the throne. This is not to be an immediate sort of matter, but rather, is designed to be part of a larger process by which the son will step into the throne of his father and carry on the Bourbon family project of ruling Spain as a constitutional monarch. The voluntary abdication of a throne is not a normal matter (although we have seen four of abdications since 2013, an unusually high amount), although there are some analogues to it that are more common like the co-regencies of biblical history. Yet the reasons for this particular abdication are quite notable, as is the intent.
In order to understand the importance of the abdication of King Juan Carlos, it is necessary to understand the history of the Bourbon dynasty in Spain for the last century or so. When Juan Carlos was born in 1938, his family had been in exile for seven years, as the Spanish monarchy had been abolished in 1931. At the time, Spain was embroiled in the midst of a brutal civil war that led to the victory of Francisco Franco and the establishment of a Fascist regime that would rule for almost 40 years . Juan Carlos’ rise to the position of the king was by no means a straightforward one—as a teenager he was involved in the accidental death of his brother by gunfire, and in 1969 his nomination as the heir-apparent to the Spanish throne (skipping over his father), included having to join the fascist party of Spain, which Juan Carlos did without any obvious difficulty.
We may therefore see that the Bourbon rule over Spain is an immensely fragile matter, lacking the sort of legitimacy that comes from lengthy tradition and habit that many other monarchies possess. Being a recent restoration, Juan Carlos’ recognition of the vulnerability of his family project led him to sacrifice his own power and prestige, such as it is, in order to help preserve his family’s rule over Spain for future generations. It is a wise choice, if a difficult one. Not all monarchs are able to rise above their own personal pride and consider the larger picture of the endurance of their dynasties. Most rulers are caught between the inertia of generations of rule and the fear that their power and privilege are immensely fragile, capable of being undermined by loudmouthed bloggers or upwardly mobile provincials who want to be treated with honor and respect as if they were the same level as elites.
It is important to realize, additionally, what factors led Juan Carlos to abdicate at this particular time. Although the king and the Bourbon monarchy are generally popular in Spain, there are some serious rumblings of discontent. For one, Juan Carlos has had some unfortunate contretemps with various other political leaders that has given him a reputation for being somewhat prickly and combative (not that this is necessarily a bad thing when one is dealing with people like Venezuela’s leftist dictator Chavez). More ominously, he was found to have engaged in an elephant hunt in Botswana while serving as the honorary president of the World Wide Fund For Nature, a trip that he claimed was not taken on tax dollars. Not only are elephant hunts of the type practiced by such early 20th century leaders as Theodore Roosevelt not generally accepted practices (especially not by people who claim an interest in the protection of animal life), but even the appearance of diverting tax funds to such activities is generally abhorrent to citizens in general. It was likely this particular action and the scrutiny that followed that led Juan Carlos to abdicate in favor of his son Felipe.
It is the job of Felipe to undertake the task of a constitutional monarch in our contemporary age. The first is to largely avoid impeding with the political course of a democracy, as kings who stand in the way of elected regimes and their popular mandates do not generally fare well once the anger at obstructive tyranny exceeds the reservoir of veneration for tradition and authority that exists in societies. Another task is to be a low-cost source of tourist dollars and societal entertainment. For example, the British monarchy does not greatly cost the British people as a whole, costing somewhere around a pound per British citizen, a very low-cost form of entertainment given the constant interest the royal family provides around the world . Other monarchies are more expensive, and it is up to a nation for itself to decide if they get enough out of their ruling families to justify the expensive of such finery. In general, so long as a monarch is law-abiding, of decent character, and is a responsible steward of his nation’s grants to him (or her), the gains that come from fancy buildings and classy court etiquette would appear to far outweigh such modest expenses. In circumstances where royal families take larger amounts of the public wealth and cause harm rather than bring honor to their nations, I am not particularly inclined to be very supportive of such parasitical rulers.
It is an immensely wise thing for a ruler to realize that the continued hold of his family over a nation in generations to come is more important than holding on to power with a cold, dead grip until the last possible moment. Whatever the shortcomings of a leader, the willingness to leave office voluntarily without causing great damage to the legitimacy of one’s office speaks highly to one’s character and concern for the bigger picture than simply one’s own life and one’s own desires and preferences. Such nobility ought to be appreciated, since the offices any of us happen to maintain is bigger than any one man, and it is an act of great evil to ruin the reputation of an office simply because of our own unrepented folly or misconduct. Sometimes, however, it is hard for people to remember that.
 Juan Carlos has been the subject of previous writing: