As the Diamond Jubilee year draws to an end, examples mount up of Andrew Marr's reinterpretation earlier this year of the monarchy with the Queen as our "department of friendliness," in the wake of the intense Jubilee programme. Marr's description is admittedly cringy. But is it wrong?
What the monarchy is not
First I’ll look at some arguments inspired by this blog post, and show that there is no libertarian case against the monarchy in Britain.
That the monarchy is a cost to the taxpayer is a common misconception. While the real amount spent on the monarchy is somewhat debatable if we take into account the cost of security and so on, the revenues from the Crown Estate more than make up for it. As of last year, 85% of this revenue goes to the government, and the other 15% goes to the Queen, to whom the land actually belongs. So in actual fact, for the last 250 years the monarch has effectively had to give money to the taxpayer (in return for an allowance), not the other way around.
A libertarian might still object to the Crown Estate because it is not strictly private property—it’s a statutory corporation, accountable to Parliament, which the Queen is not allowed to sell. So the land is effectively nationalised. If it were available to the private market the land might generate more wealth than it does in its current 'nationalised' state. For a start, this is a somewhat dubious counterfactual, as the Crown Estate has actually been doing rather well: profits from this land have risen in the last year (see Crown Estate website link above). But as we shall see, even conceding this point, it is still not a good reason to oppose the monarchy.
Nor can we object to it from the perspective of property rights. George III voluntarily gave up the income from the Crown lands, and this agreement has been voluntarily continued by successive monarchs. There are no identifiable private owners who are being forced to give up their property to the state (as is the case for actual nationalised industries).
And even if there were such a grievance, this is still only an objection to how the monarchy is set up financially, not to the institution itself—which could perfectly well still exist under some other arrangement, as it eventually will as it continues to evolve. I similarly object to how the military and the NHS are funded; I’m not opposed to armies and hospitals. I merely hope and expect that as these institutions are improved, they will gradually be privatised. Given the comparative success of the Crown Estate, and given its voluntary nature, there should be less reason to abolish it on financial grounds, not more. Why do anti-monarchist libertarians commit this double standard? I suppose it is part of a deeper error that will presently be treated.
It is not the job of the government to make money, so it has no business accepting the revenues of the Crown lands.*
This argument contains the methodological assumption that to decide whether a policy is right, one first chooses a set of principles and then derives policy from them. So, a libertarian who takes this approach might conclude that the state’s proper functions are to run the police and the military and nothing else, and oppose the existence of all other government institutions on those grounds. It is true that as these things are improved, they will eventually be privatised (if you don’t agree, accept it here for the sake of argument). But it is profoundly untrue that we should decide whether to support a policy by checking it against a principle, and oppose it if it’s not allowed by the principle. This is dogmatic: It has to assume that the principle is infallible, as it is being treated as the ultimate authority on the rightness or wrongness of a given policy. Treating it as an authority makes it difficult or impossible for the principle itself to be improved.
This utopian methodology fails to take into account that it is harder to create knowledge than to destroy it. This means that less knowledge will be embodied in our institutions if they are all completely revamped every time the principles of government are changed, abolishing everything that doesn’t fit that utopian criterion. Even without one of these Ultimate Libertarian (/insert other political persuasion here) principles, one might wish to have abolished anything that seems to exist without an explicit reason of some kind. But this is also dogmatic: We don’t know what the value is of many of our traditions. It’s wrong to assume that failing to name their value entails that they are worthless. Countless rules of grammar don’t appear to have explicit motivations, but if we started revising the English language on those grounds we would end up with a language not dissimilar to Newspeak.
The better approach—and the one on which England bases its success as a civilisation—is to retain a given tradition until and unless a problem is found with it (an actual problem—not merely a failure to live up to utopian criteria or articulated justification). Tradition is existing knowledge. Much of this knowledge is not explicit; we don’t consciously know the reasons behind many rules and ceremonies. It is for this reason that people who call for the monarchy to be abolished—rather than altered in certain ways—are so woefully mistaken. It would be easy to wipe it away, along with other government institutions, and replace it with a government derived from libertarian principles—but there is danger in that ease.
* Quoted from this post.