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Do Constitutional Monarchies Lead to Stability, or the Other Way Around?

By Taylor Marvin

Allan Ramsay, 'King George III'. Via Wikimedia.

Allan Ramsay, ‘King George III’. Via Wikimedia.

At the Washington Post’s Wonkblog Dylan Matthews provocatively argues that constitutional monarchies are a sounder form of government than presidential republics or parliamentary democracies with a largely-ceremonial head of state. Constitutional monarchy is, Matthew writes, “at worst, fully compatible with representative democracy, and, at best, makes representative democracy stronger.” In his excellent blog Suffragio Kevin Lees pokes holes in Matthews’ pro-monarchical argument, noting that many of Matthews points make the mistake of confusing correlation with causation. In particular, Lees attacks Matthews’ comparison highlighting constitutional monarchies’ above average GDP per capita and life expectancy:

“There are a lot of historical and economic reasons that explain why constitutional monarchies, which are predominantly located in Europe, are so much richer and healthier. North America and Europe are, well, richer than Africa or the Middle East or South America, in general terms, but it seems like ‘having a constitutional monarchy’ is not incredibly high on the list of reasons why Europe’s standard of living is so much higher than Africa’s. The legacy of colonialism, for one.”

Of course Lees is correct, and his piece is very much worth reading. But even within Europe, I think you can take this point farther. As Lees notes, Matthews’ (admittedly tongue-in-cheek) analysis isn’t simply misattributing contemporary Western Europe’s high development levels to its relatively common monarchical forms of government, it also mistakes monarchies’ survival as a cause, rather than result, of historical social stability. Only the rare monarchy has survived to the present, and in Europe only in constitutional form. Generalizing, this political continuity is more likely to occur in European countries with greater historical stability — in more unstable countries, early modern era monarchies were gradually screened out by revolution or political instability.

The two metrics Matthews cites — life expectancy and GDP per capita — are both typically dependent on historical trends. Countries with leading per capita incomes today tend to have seen relatively constant, steady growth for decades, growth that is often indicative of stable public institutions, growing human capital, and durable market economies. In addition to steady growth and rising incomes, these same social institutions are also associated with political stability.

At the risk of oversimplifying the various national contexts that allowed surviving monarchies — those of Andorra, Belgium, Denmark, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, and the UK — to avoid the (often literal) guillotine, monarchical continuity is a proxy for historical social stability. Later in the piece Matthews admits that constitutional monarchy doesn’t cause higher development levels, but is merely compatible with them. But really, it’s again the other way around: monarchies are more likely to survive in European countries with the same historical traits associated with higher development levels today.

Of course, in Europe at least the monarchies that survived were constitutional monarchies, while absolutist rulers were more often overthrown. But again, this is more likely an effect rather than a cause of social stability — the independent institutions and alternative political power centers able to coerce monarchs to cede power were conductive to later economic growth.

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