How Monarchs Became Servants of the State
European monarchs come and go, but the American media—no doubt largely due to the fact the British speak and write in English—follows the British monarchy more closely than others. American pundits didn’t have much to say when King Juan Carlos of Spain abdicated in 2014 in the wake of an embezzlement scandal. But, it’s only been a few hours since the death of Queen Elizabeth II, and the speculation about the future of the British monarchy is already plentiful. Hayes Brown at MSNBC writes this week, for example, on how Elizabeth held together a declining institution, but “It is entirely probable that [new King Charles III] and his likely successor, Prince William, will oversee the unraveling of the monarchy itself.”
We shall see.
But in one respect Brown is undeniably right when he says: “the wheels of the state will continue turning without her.” Of course they will. In the modern world, none of the monarchs of Europe are critical institutions within the regimes over which they ostensibly “reign.”
Indeed, the mere fact that we refer to “the state” as something distinct from a monarch at all illustrates a crucial fact about the relationship between monarchs and the state in the modern world: states have surpassed and replaced the monarchs as the true source of legal and military power power within their respective territories. Moderns states have subsequently expanded this power far beyond what even the most ambitious monarchs of centuries past dreamed about. There is an irony here, however. In Europe, it was the monarchs themselves who built up law courts and military institutions into the immense states that we know today. In the process, though, the monarchs lost control of these increasingly unwieldy and bureaucratic institutions. Eventually, the monarchs grew to become appendages of the state, rather than the other way around, as the monarchs had originally intended. This all occurred even before the advent of democratic states. By the nineteenth century, the old model of private dynastic rule had been overturned by the machinery of states, both democratic and not.
Monarchy Before the State
Certainly, the monarchies of today should not be confused with the monarchies that existed before the state rose to prominence in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
The pre-state monarchs, after all, were essentially private land owners whose income depended largely on rents collected from the monarch’s private estates. These rents were not necessarily collected in the form of money, and money was often scarce. But these landowners nonetheless collected resources—in the form of crops, military service, or other in-kind payments—from those who used the owners’ lands. In this environment, however, there was no “sovereign” institution that exercised a monopoly on the means of coercion, and the system was essentially a system of private law. It was, as John Strayer put it a system of, “public power in private hands, and a m
Article from Mises Wire