Saturday, June 23, 2012

Snow White and the eager monarchists

Today I watched and enjoyed Snow White and the Huntsman, a pretty inventive take on the fairy tale in which Snow White is a princess who is imprisoned after her father's kingdom is conquered by a wicked witch queen. It is made clear that Snow White is destined in some way, probably to defeat the witch and become queen herself. There is talk of her arrival healing the land from the blight caused by the witch's reign. 

The general thrust, then, is that Snow White is the legitimate ruler of the land because her father was king. This is a monarchist perspective, in which legitimacy to rule comes from inheritance through a divinely destined aristocracy, and not from popular support. Lots of fairy tales feature this positive, paternalistic view of monarchs as legitimate rulers and guardians, and it appears in Tolkien's Middle Earth books and in C.S. Lewis's Narnia books.

In a modern world where democracy is increasingly seen as the only legitimate form of government this nostalgia for a romanticised monarchy is interesting. Any attempt to install a feudal monarchy in modern Europe would provoke amusement and contempt. So were there any good things about monarchs?

A famous essay by Professor Mancur Olson argued in 1993 that monarchs, even of the most destructive kind, could play a positive role as by keeping parasitic 'roving bandits' at bay. He gives the example of brutal warlords of 1920s China, who taxed ordinary people heavily, but also defeated criminal gangs:
The warlords had no claim to legitimacy and their thefts were distinguished from those of roving bandits only because they took the form of continuing taxation rather than occasional plunder.

In fact, if a roving bandit rationally settles down and takes his theft in the form of regular taxation and at the same time maintains a monopoly on theft in his domain, then those from whom he exacts taxes will have an incentive to produce. The rational stationary bandit will take only a part of income in taxes, because he will be able to exact a larger total amount of income from his subjects if he leaves them with an incentive to generate income that he can tax.

If the stationary bandit successfully monopolizes the theft in his domain, then his-victims do not need to worry about theft by others. If he steals only through regular taxation, then his subjects know that they can keep whatever proportion of their output is left after they have paid their taxes. Since all of the settled bandit's victims are for him a source of tax payments, he also has an incentive to prohibit the murder or maiming of his subjects. 
Thus, self-interested warlords who manage to seize a territory and regularly tax its population are still preferable to wandering warlords who loot unpredictably. The roving bandits will take as much as they can, the stationary bandits will leave some wealth with taxpayers as a kind of investment. If the land belongs to the king, the king might be concerned about making improvements, advancing some public goods like roads or docks to boost its overall productive capacity so that the king's children will enjoy even greater wealth and power. If the land belongs to others, the roving bandit might as well raze it to the ground, murder everyone, and grab what they can.

In insecure medieval times, a powerful king or queen might be seen as a great defender of the masses from pirates and bandits, and from the violence of expansionary local lords. Monarchy may have offered a fairly reliable way to transition from one ruler to the next by rendering the whole thing divine and beyond manipulation: power shifting from dead king to eldest son at death.

In our modern, more stable world, democracy seems to be much more preferable, sharing power between bigger groups of people and making transitions of power even more peaceful through the ritual of elections. But I can imagine the attractiveness for miserably poor peasants in the borderlands of a man or woman with a crown and a cross, whose power is unquestionable because of its divine legitimacy through inheritance, and who protects the borders with huge, centralised armies. Snow White's tale of the land rotting under the usurper, and healing under the rightful heir, may be less fantastical than it seems.

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