Judging by the unhealthy obsession that major American news outlets have with the British royal family’s recent rupture, the casual reader might be excused if they mistook the year for 1775. While much coverage has lauded “Prince” Harry and “Duchess” Meghan’s desire for financial independence from the British crown, missing is the admission that monarchy is a revolting, illiberal institution antithetical to American values that predate the nation’s founding.
The monarchical system is entirely predicated on the basis that individuals derive the right to rule from the mere fact that they have a certain last name and ancestry. There is no meritocratic consideration nor popular sovereignty involved in hereditary succession. Under monarchy, the nation’s policy is contingent on the sovereign's tendency for despotism.
Pamphleteer Thomas Paine got a lot wrong — notably his contention that revolutionaries have in their hands the “power to begin the world over again” (a sentiment that would later justify the deaths of millions of Russian and Chinese peasants in the 20th century) — but his sharp criticism of monarchy remains timeless. Monarchy, Paine wrote in chapter 2.3 of “Rights of Man,” is “a system of mental levelling” that “puts children over men, and the conceits of non-age over wisdom and experience.” Because there is no qualification involved in hereditary selection, monarchs “succeed each other, not as rationals, but as animals.”
Even within a constitutional monarchy such as the United Kingdom, all parliamentary authority is technically derived from the monarch. The current governing coalition is referred to as “Her Majesty’s Government” and could, if the sovereign so chose, be dissolved on a whim. Yes, constitutional monarchy may be a benign strain of absolute rule, but there is still the abhorrent tradition of the queen referring to the U.K. government as “my government” while surrounded by absurd amounts of opulence and pageantry.
The framers of the U.S. Constitution realized the profound injustice of hereditary succession and levied important checks to prevent a similar situation in the United States. The U.S. government cannot issue titles of nobility, and citizens are constitutionally prohibited from accepting any title from a foreign monarch. American values, from our desire for meritocracy to the importance we place on electoral legitimacy, repudiate monarchy in every sense. A system where an individual has the unchecked ability to act as they see fit with “their” people has the odious reverbs of slavery.
There is a serious argument that advocates the need for some sort of figurehead to perform the ceremonies of state so that elected officials are freed up for actual governance, but this is a rather harmful view which holds that leadership should strive for “panem et circenses.” This patronizes ordinary people by emphasizing their need for the cheap entertainment that royalty is good for, not to mention the fact that excessive attention on figureheads draws away from the demanding questions of government and any actual accountability.
Defenders of the U.K. royal family note that while the institution cost the British taxpayers about £67 million last year, those costs are more than made up for in government revenues on the crown lands. But systems of government should not be judged on the basis of profit, but rather by an evaluation of the just derivation and exercise of power. French King Louis XIV put it well when he reportedly uttered, “l’etat c’est moi,” — “I am the state,” to explain how monarchy derives legitimacy from itself, rather than the “demos.”
This may not seem like an issue because the U.S. system of government is nowhere near monarchical, but lighthearted coverage by the American media helps to justify the institution of monarchy. This differs from celebrity worship, because American popular icons ultimately do not possess any political authority and therefore cannot exercise tyranny via “kratos,” or hard power.
Judging by the status of the royal family in American culture (look at the popularity of Netflix’s “The Crown,” for example), it seems that as a whole, we have largely lost the “spirit of ‘76” and may be more receptive to illiberal rule by an undemocratically selected individual.
It is not the business of the United States to tell our best friend and closest ally which kind of government they should adopt, but perhaps it is a collective interest to stop our corrosive, perverse obsession with the royal family.
Jacob Trubey is a fourth-year studying Political Science and a former member of Technician’s Editorial Board. He is currently Chairman of the Student Media Board of Directors. His views do not reflect those of his employers — past, present or future.