In 1992, roughly a year after the dissolution of the USSR, a now famous (at least among political science majors) Japanese-American named Francis Fukuyama published what at the time was a ground shaking piece of work. Titled ‘The End of History and the Last Man’, Fukuyama set out to explain how – now that the Cold War had ended and the West had won over even the soviets – what we were witnessing was the final triumph of capitalism and democracy.
A little while later Fukuyama himself ended up renouncing his position, at least in part: history had not ended. What he originally wanted to point out was that once liberal democracy becomes the norm of a state, there will be no more political evolution in the polity. No more clashes, no more trans-ideological battles like those between the communists and the capitalist of yesteryear. Except that almost never happened – and, according to Fukuyama himself, even the US strayed from this beaten path from time to time.
With respect to this, it’s worth reminding the reader that there are people around the world that don’t live in liberal democracies, and more still that haven’t seen a computer screen – and that might not get to see one, ever. The differences in economic might and political stability are huge even among geographically close states. So after asking myself if there could be any common causality between a poor life and poor politics, I started looking at the numbers.
There are three main ways in which a group of people defines their statehood within their constitution: absolute monarchies (think almighty rulers that keep power in the family), constitutional monarchies (kings and queens that use democratic principles to rule or pass power to government) and republics (the archetype of modern polities, where you vote for someone and / or are voted into power).
And then there are the problem areas, states that have been hit hard by violence or have been themselves forgotten by history, places where there is no constitutional validity to statehood but which are still considered polities since they can maintain some order.
Since I’m ultimately talking about how politics influences people’s lives, you’ll see that the concept of democracy is not synonymous with a comfortable existence. Fukuyama himself can tell you that. Excluding semantics, democracy isn’t really easy to achieve in its entirety – all nations of today come in closer or farther from that ideal, but I won’t go into that.
What I ended up using was a far simpler way of perceiving how people within a specific territory go about living their life: freedom. This is where the picture gains a few more shades of contrast.
Absolute monarchies in 2016 are never free states, their rulers hoard power and leave little freedom to their citizens. No surprises there. On the opposite of the scale are, maybe counterintuitively for some, constitutional monarchies with over two-thirds of them being considered free states. Historically, monarchies were linked to lack of freedom for the people (think France in 1789) – but this isn’t the case in modern times. Republics come in next, where roughly one-third of them are free, and then undetermined polities (i.e. no constitutional basis to state organisation) where, at best, people are partly free.
Looking at this from a more precise perspective, I found that by using the Freedom House scale of political rights and civil liberties (where 1 is best and 7 is worst) constitutional monarchies again best all other forms of statehood.
Republics came in second with higher averages since amongst the world’s republics many nations have powerful systemic issues so the average is worse off.
Constitutional monarchies nowadays, on the other hand, tend to be former colonial powers or consolidated European democracies that braved out most of the world’s problematic history and created better lives for their citizens both politically and economically.
Which brings me to money. Mapping global GDP I found that, surprisingly, absolute monarchies rake in the most value. Well, produce the most money with respect to their populations.
But that didn’t seem right – just by looking at this, one would think that people in absolute monarchies have the most economic mobility, since their counts are on average double of any other polity systems. So I wanted to check the Human Development Index to validate this claim, and what I found balanced out the sheet, much to the detriment of today’s anachronistic kingdoms.
In almost mirror fashion, I found that not only is there almost no correlation between human development (especially when it’s adjusted for inequality within a state’s borders) and gross domestic product counts, but that absolute monarchies average out at roughly half what constitutional monarchies do when looking at human development. So much for using GDP to evaluate quality of life.
What’s more, absolute monarchies beat all other forms of statehood – including undetermined states – in measurements of inequality, except for the demographic measure of life expectancy where republics take the lead.
Overall, the map of freedom seems to reflect most of what I already knew. Europe, North America and some key international actors such as Australia are the bastions of freedom in a world peppered by uncertainty and, most of the time, political repression.
After all this, I found that I really didn’t learn anything new. Sure, some geographies are more prone to putting people down – and some forms of statehood are more prone to making people’s lives difficult. So rather than simplify the model again and seek out some patterns that way, I came up with new indicators that factored in:
– constitutional form
– the way in which the head of state exerts power
– how that power is legitimized
…and ultimately came up with a new and more nuanced outlook.
Rather than four categories of polity, I now see that the world is composed of nations that fall into roughly nine slots (I did come up with a different scale and ended up with 27 categories, but that seemed so complex I gave it up for fear of being redundant).
This new view factored in the way in which politics get done within a polity – so not only how the ruler or leader manifests power. Seemingly similar nations that share the ideals of liberal democracy now seemed different with respect to these shades of detail. But is there any one way of organizing a state which stands out as being better?
I think so. And again, I’m talking about constitutional monarchies – only now I add that the ones where government is the de facto ruler which is kept in check by parliament are the freest of all nations, on average, with the worst being, again, absolute monarchies.
Despite this, most of today’s nations are republics where the president is independent of parliament. Simplifying things, these nations are usually called presidential republics. The US is in this slot, with the president acting as commander and chief.
Undetermined states are the least common. There are only three existing today, namely Thailand (formerly a monarchy, which underwent a military coup in 2014 and has since not regained constitutional statehood), Venezuela (which is under massive economic strain, with shortages of everything from food to toilet paper) and Libya (which has yet to recuperate political stability full way after the Arab Spring in 2011).
Yet there’s worth to mentioning that there is a fourth major body of land which has no official statehood: Western Sahara, a land barren of laws over which multiple nations, European and African, have fought over. For the moment, Morocco has reign over it, but we can’t really say it’s a state since rule of law (and hence legitimacy of the polity) is absent.
Absolute monarchies rank first here as well with respect to GDP per capita – but the tides shift at the lower areas of the scale. Single party states averaged out the least with respect to their gross national production values.
All this seems to prove that republics are almost always somewhere in the middle between absolutist kingdoms and modern constitutional monarchies.
So what’s best? How can we understand the world just by looking at things like freedom, rights, liberties and who guarantees them? It seems we can’t, at least not for sure.
While the correlation between civil liberties and political rights is extremely high (95% high, to be precise) there isn’t any definitive proof of a causal link between the other variables, as they all average out around the 50% range. Correlations they are, but weak ones.
So I instead took a look at development figures, factoring in three grades: economy, investment, and (something rarely taken into consideration) sustainability. With the overall country score added in for context, the situation looked like the below.
Constitutional monarchies topped the list here as well. Countries like Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Great Britain comprise this list, so it’s ultimately no surprise that this system of polity took the lead.
What shocked was the second place: absolute monarchies. It seems there’s more to this than first meets the eye. While these nations do encounter profound systemic issues which give way to huge inequality amongst their populations, they’re not that rotten after all – having relatively good economies, good scores on investment and somewhat sustainable outlooks. At least for now.
Instead of takeaways, I’ll just leave you with another metric I (sort of) developed – the distance to the ideal polity, as measured by taking the averages of political and civil rights and liberties in all countries from my dataset.
Single party states are terrible and few, absolute monarchies are a bit better but still far from ideal, undetermined states creep the scale a bit higher but are yet to fully go beyond a quarter of the way to the measurable ideal of what a polity should be.
What follows is a streak of republics which differentiate themselves in how they elect their leaders and how they get legitimized, with those where the president is independent of parliament being by far the most common (roughly one-third of the world’s nations fall into this category). It’s worth keeping in mind that republics, while lower with respect to desirable average measurements, are the most common form of polity in the world of today. That means that they give the most people the chance to live free lives.
In the end, constitutional monarchies that are lead by governments which answer to parliament beat all other systems of polity. I’ve found that by using a percentile scale, these nations (on average) come in at 76.2% closeness to an ideal political structure.
It’s true, these countries are amongst a blessed few. Their populations are well under average for their landmasses and have huge access to natural resources, be them regenerable or not. And of course, these nations aren’t really run by their monarchs. They have political checks and balances that manifest and give the people the freedom they have. More to the point, monarchs in such states are ultimately symbolic leaders of the nation – a vestige of times gone by.
I’ll admit I’m partial for this system, the main reason for which is that it gives the population a very stable political background (it’s symbolic, mind you) upon which internal politics are waged. In republics people tend to be far more cynical toward a nation’s leader, mostly because they really are the executive power. Since this executive power changes once every 4 or 5, or 8 or 10 years (depending on the length of the mandate) it’s mentally straining to base one’s personal identity upon a president. And if you have a president for life, well, that sucks even more.
It’s true that a lot of republicans (i.e. people that want to live in a republic) in Norway or Sweden or even Great Britain would like to see the monarchy ousted. But it’s my suspicion that this isn’t because of the royal families themselves. In Europe, political struggle is something a tad different from that in the US – multitudes of political parties come and go, with a few consolidating themselves and the rest dying out sooner or later. It’s very probable that hard line republicans in European constitutional monarchies are just average folks that couldn’t care less if the king or queen were really there or not: but they burst out in frustration since their preferred political party or movement just never gets into government.
With respect to the cost of hosting a royal family, I highly recommend CGP Gray’s take on the British monarchy as a way of understanding how this is not necessarily a strain on the economy, but actually a boost.
This whole discussion can be reduced to a couple of main terms:
- The monarchy (the family) are political – which implies that they are the institution upon which the whole thing is built. No executive power, but they stand as proof that the people adhere to a more or less common set of moral and functional principles. Again, these people are there for life, so conduit still counts: no brash declarations, complete avoidance of internal or external political commentary and maintaining a dignified lifestyle which doesn’t attract tabloid fever. What they are is not people, but the state itself. They’re not a family of rulers, but an institution that’s kept for symbolic reasons. Much like the US has the Declaration of Independence as a form of political backbone, these nations have the monarchy.
- The government (the de facto rulers) are politics – which means that they are the people that actually get things done, and struggle to get into that position of power by way of popular election.
‘Political’ and ‘politics’ get confused sometimes. I should know, because used to do this, too. Semantics is most of the time something irrelevant, but not in this situation. I remember when I was first taught of this discrepancy, and how it forever changed the way I saw statehood.
So maybe history isn’t over, but it sure pays off to have a good one.
Reach out on Twitter if you’d like to talk about this or get a glimpse at my dataset.
- Countries categorized by system of government in 20th century at Historical Atlas of 20th Century – http://users.erols.com/mwhite28/20centry.htm
- Human Development Reports – Inequality-adjusted Human Development Index – http://hdr.undp.org/en/composite/IHDI#e
- Boston Consulting Group – THE 2016 SUSTAINABLE ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT ASSESSMENT
- Freedom House – FREEDOM IN THE WORLD 2016
- Google Public Data