‘Nations stumble upon establishments, which are indeed the result of human action,
but not the execution of any human design.’
Adam Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767)

01 July 2010

A Royal Example for Progressive Conservatism

This week, the Queen began a week-long homecoming to Canada. On the 1st of July, she and the Duke of Edinburgh will be in the nation’s capital to celebrate Dominion Day, marking 143 years since the enactment of the British North America Act and Canadian Confederation.

Yet the United Kingdom and Canada have more in common than Queen Elizabeth II and constitutional monarchy: the rule of law, parliamentary government, and inter-twined histories are just a few political realities shared by these two Commonwealth members (and countless others). Both countries are also witness to the successful exploits of One Nation Tory politics—‘progressive conservatism’—of which the Victorian prime ministers, Benjamin Disraeli and Sir John A. Macdonald, were master practitioners.

The monarch, serving in Walter Bagehot’s ‘dignified capacity’, is above the hurly-burly of partisan politics, and offers to all parties the benefit of its accumulated wisdom, signified by its prerogatives rights to be consulted, to encourage, and to warn. ‘The nation is divided into parties, but the crown is of no party.’ Nevertheless, the monarchy represents two ideals that have especial resonance for progressive conservatism: limited government and the obligatory State.

Limited government, as historians will attest, is predominantly a Whig tenet. But when the alternative on the political spectrum is the all-encompassing State, setting limits to legitimate government becomes no less a conservative principle, too. King Louis XIV is rumoured to have boasted, ‘L’état, c’est moi’, setting up visions of material and financial rapacious as the ends of absolute monarchy, though this is not necessarily the case, according to Hans-Hermann Hoppe.

Professor Hoppe is a libertarian economist (or ‘anarcho-capitalist’) and, true, if he had his druthers, there would be no State at all, but simply free people co-operating voluntarily amongst themselves. That being said, he believes that monarchical government has a valuable lesson to teach democracies: ‘if one has to choose between two evils, a monarchical state or a democratic state, then monarchies have certain advantages.’

Because everybody knew I cannot become a king, there was resistance against attempts on the part of kings to increase taxes and to increase exploitation of their subjects. Under democracy, the illusion arises that we all rule ourselves even though it should be perfectly clear, of course, that also under a democracy there exists rulers and people who are ruled. But because of the fact that everybody can potentially become a public employee, the illusion of “we rule ourselves” arises and this then leads to a reduction of the resistance that existed vis-à-vis kings when it came to the attempt of increasing tax revenue.

A king sits on the throne with only the impediments of old age to curtail the longevity of his reign; he views public lands as personal property, to be passed on to his heirs, and tends it with care and with an eye for its future prosperity. Likewise, his subjects, knowing that they will never directly partake of the royal bounty, are jealous of their own property rights. A relationship of mutual (if wary) respect is established, which is reflected in restricted policies of appropriation and aggression: an overzealous king must always fear the loss of popular support and ensuing revolution. Monarchy thus inculcates, after its own fashion, the conservative beliefs in personal freedom, property ownership, and the modest State.

In a democracy, however, the tension between rulers and ruled is weakened, since it is widely held that ‘we are the government’. The limited government that constitutes the relationship of king and people morphs into the unlimited government of citizen legislators. Elected officials, holding office for the short-term—and with no concern for the circumstances of their political successors—more readily spend for immediate public gratification (and sometimes for the benefit of their associates and hangers-on). Furthermore, according to public choice theory, these leaders are more apt to spend on initiatives that will help them get re-elected. Citizens, meanwhile, who see themselves as possible office holders themselves one day, are less jealous in defending their rights. As many public works will benefit them, and with the tax burden spread among many, democratic welfare programmes are welcomed. Funding concerns are left to another day. Bagehot, in words that predate Hoppe, believed the Crown could provide a salutary counterweight:

But a wise and great constitutional monarch attempts no such vanities. His career is not in the air; he labours in the world of sober fact; he deals with schemes which can be effected—schemes which are desirable—schemes which are worth the cost.

These are the dangers of atrophied accountability and the evils of expanded government, that centuries of royal rule and experience can teach modern democratic States—but these lessons are wholly of a negative character: a caution against democratic government encroaching upon our rights. A more positive libertarian approach to the monarchy is to emphasis our natural rights as individuals, which no authority, royal or democratic, can morally infringe. ‘Governments are instituted among Men,’ in Jefferson’s immortal Declaration, ‘deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed’. This is the truest sense of equality under the law. As Seán Cronin argued in ‘A Libertarian Defence of the Monarchy’:

But the most important, if least tangible benefit of a constitutional Monarchy, is that if forces [the First Minister] to refer to himself as ‘Her Majesty’s Prime Minister’. He is Her Majesty’s servant, and not just him but all politicians. The constant reminder that there is someone set above them, that they serve someone else, must have a salutary effect on the most arrogant mind. It is true that these are only symbolic words, and real power lies with the Prime Minister—as is perfectly proper, because we exert some control at least over his excesses. But anyone who doubts the importance of symbolic words in politics is ignoring the reality of what is, in favour of what they believe should be. [...] Better for my freedom, and yours, that our Head of State be a constitutional Monarch, able to rein in politicians but not to reign politically, than the alternative.

Admittedly, the United Kingdom and Canada are both constitutional monarchies, yet each has seen exploding deficits and crippling debt accumulation—where is the royal reproach when we need it? Obviously, the virtues of limited government need additional proponents than the example set by the monarchical model. Still, the relationship between the Crown and the premier is a symbol of the limits of power—whether exercised by the Crown or its ministers—a lesson not to be forgotten by prime ministers in relation to their cabinets and backbenchers, and duplicated by governments toward the people.

This is the conservative element in royalty and politics.

The Crown also serves as a symbol of the obligatory State. What do I mean by the obligatory State? Libertarians, as exemplified by Professor Hoppe, view the State as a coercive institution, compelling people through its laws and tax policies to redistribute property from those who generate wealth to those who don’t. True concern for the least advantaged, they argue, is exemplified by voluntary charity, given freely and without force.

Under the obligatory State, however, our natural relations, arising from time immemorial—‘no man is an island’—are understood as embodying more than the voluntary associations of civil society, as valuable as they are. As members of society we have obligations that transcend the here-and-now. ‘As the ends of such a partnership cannot be maintained in many generations,’ insisted Edmund Burke, ‘it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.’

Classical liberals, for instance, make the case that it is quite legitimate to pool our resources to pay for security services (domestic and foreign) and to establish a legal system. Yet if it’s permissible to establish government services in these affairs, why not go a step further to support community initiatives, as well? Why be bound by arbitrary definitions of State action? Why not progress to a more inclusive, more organic, point of view?

The question of the degree of government support will always arise, and it is important to remain vigilant about the insidious growth of welfare statism—ever mindful to resist majority tyranny over the minority—but that is no reason to spurn using the levers of government altogether to achieve community-approved goals. Even Simon Heffer, a Gladstonian liberal, advances a template of government activity that hews fairly closely to the One Nation Tory vision:

The state’s functions, in a compassionate and ordered society, can be confined to relatively few things. It should protect the public with a police force and armed services. It should provide education and health care, while perhaps finding ways to incentivise people to use non-state provision wherever possible. It should give the support that the elderly and the disabled require to live with dignity. It should see that public hygiene and essential infrastructure are maintained; and that’s about it. This requires a revolution in our way of viewing the state’s relationship with us.

The Monarchy, in addition to its own charitable causes, patronises voluntary organisations and honours those selfless volunteers who give of their time and skills for the public welfare. And as Head of State, the Crown sanctions those government activities that aim to help the young, the aged, and the disadvantaged. These are obligations we owe to each other as inter-dependent citizens, obligations that are beyond the finite abilities or comprehension of civil society—obligations that are as ageless as civil society itself—which, as the overseers of government, we direct our elected representatives to undertake on our behalf.

This is the progressive element in royalty and politics.

In British political history, the monarchy has deep and long-lasting roots—a tradition that spread throughout the Commonwealth and is nowhere more evident than in Canada. The Tory tradition, too, is strong in both countries. Together, the Crown and Conservatism stand for government limited to its proper sphere, in service to the people who are its governors; at the same time, the monarch and the Conservative party are proof that government has a legitimate role in offering progressive legislation that aids and embodies society’s aspirations for the Common Good.

Our Queen’s presence in Canada to celebrate Dominion Day is an opportunity to remember our continuing blessing under the Crown and our glorious progressive conservative legacy.

Vivent la reine et le pays du Canada!

Happy Dominion Day!

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