Analysis | Should the US Have a Monarchy?

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The just-completed celebrations of Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee in the UK have prompted a question in some quarters of the US: Should America have a monarchy? In particular, the notion of absolute rather than symbolic or constitutional monarchy is finding some new adherents on the right.

The engineer and entrepreneur Curtis Yarvin, who also has written under the pseudonym Mencius Moldbug, has called for a new American monarchy, more like Elizabeth I than Elizabeth II. The usual instant American reaction, of course, is to dismiss absolute monarchy as unjust, old-fashioned and unworkable. And in fact that remains the correct reaction — yet it’s worth thinking through what the desire for monarchy says about the current state of America’s intellectual right.

One reason some right-wing thinkers are reaching for absolute monarchy is that they want a government that can work toward particular ends with effectiveness. Yarvin frequently compares his absolute monarch to a CEO, citing Franklin Delano Roosevelt as a president who knew how to use power to make things happen. In his view, President Joseph Biden in no sense runs the government he presides over, and ours is thus a time of chaos and collapse.

Compare this to the 1980s and 1990s, when many on the right celebrated gridlock and government paralysis as the best available outcome. Those days are long gone — and left-wing thinkers should be happy about that, even if they are not ready to hand over the purple robes to the next plausible contender. Even such liberal (and non-monarchist) writers such as Ezra Klein are longing for a government that actually can get things done, and urging progressives to redirect their intellectual energies in that direction.

When two thinkers on opposite ends of the political spectrum are focused on the need to “get things done,” something is afoot. My own version of “state capacity libertarianism” is in the same vein. If some people need the trappings of monarchy to come around to this position, I will count it as a win rather than fearing authoritarianism from the next American Queen, which isn’t going to happen anyway.

The neo-monarchists also remind us, though unwittingly, of the dangers of building up state capacity too much. It is easy to mock monarchy, but might not some of the problems with monarchy affect non-monarchist moves toward greater state capacity? How exactly do we ensure that state capacity is used for the better? China, for instance, finds it very easy to build at low cost, but it abuses its eminent domain powers, fruitlessly pursues a “Zero Covid” policy and excessively surveils its citizens.

One of the main ways to channel and direct state capacity is through culture — and it is a channel that is not easily available to monarchists. After all, absolute monarchy is hardly the tradition in the US, a nation founded in rebellion against the rule of George III. Yarvin sketches a vision of a US president handing over a Bible and the nuclear football to Charles III and riding away in an Uber, while the Royal Navy cruises up the Potomac.

If you are not sure how serious Yarvin is — that’s the point. It is very difficult to paint a coherent cultural portrait of a monarchist transition.

Many monarchist critics focus on the anti-democratic nature of the proposal. They may not realize how much parts of the New Right see the status quo as promoting a stifling conformity in academia, the media and corporate America (Yarvin’s “Cathedral”), rather than a truly pluralistic discourse.

I see far more intellectual diversity in today’s America than Yarvin does. Still, I wish that the “Cathedral” (am I allowed to call it that too?) would be a little more self-aware of its own limitations rather than just shouting down the anti-democratic thinkers as fascists. It’s also possible to think of absolute monarchy as a desperate way to restore diversity of thought, by creating a post whose holder is not accountable to the Cathedral.

The most telling criticism of absolute monarchy is a historical one. In the UK above all, the so-called “absolute” monarchs faced severe fiscal demands, which they met only by granting increasing powers to Parliament or the local nobles. And that was the case when government was a very small percentage of GDP. How would things work today? Would a king have as much power as, say, Tim Cook does? If the executive branch and legislature were to renegotiate old bargains today, the results might be so messy that each would end up with less power and coherence than what Yarvin sees now.

For better or worse, the only feasible path to greater state capacity is to commit to improve the strengths the state already has. And for all its failings, the current US state has many notable recent achievements: holding al Qaeda in check, arming Ukraine, running Operation Warp Speed, and (about a decade ago, but still) saving the financial system.

To me, monarchy doesn’t even sound like fun. Then again, I’m someone who has been to London many times and never visited Buckingham Palace. An actual American monarchy would hold absolutely no interest to me. Just thinking about the idea, however, is a useful new way to see the problems with our American form of government.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

• Britain Is Taking School Snobbery to New Heights: Therese Raphael

• The Queen Has Had Far More Triumphs Than Failures: Martin Ivens

• A Multiplicity of Britains Under One Queen: Adrian Woolridge

• Britain Begins to Think the Unthinkable: Life After the Queen: Martin Ivens

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. He is coauthor of “Talent: How to Identify Energizers, Creatives, and Winners Around the World.”

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion

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