Since completing university, Paul has worked as a bookseller, librarian, and freelance writer. Born in the UK, he now lives in Florida.
Monarchy is where a country has a member of a royal family, usually a king or a queen, for its ruler and/or head of state. When the monarch dies, the role is usually handed on to another family member, traditionally the eldest son in most cultures.
It is an ancient form of government and despite many countries in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries abolishing their monarchies and replacing them with republican systems of government, there are still many countries today who have some form of monarchy, including Sweden, Morocco, and the United Kingdom.
Broadly speaking, modern monarchies can be split into two main types: absolute and constitutional. I will explain the difference below, before listing the pros and cons of absolute and constitutional monarchies.
What is The Difference Between an Absolute and a Constitutional Monarchy?
Absolute monarchy is where the king or queen rules directly with absolute control. It is essentially an autocracy, all power rests solely with the monarch and there are few or zero legal or political checks on their power. This system was the norm for many centuries and only began to change in the 1600's as European countries experimented with curbing the political powers of monarchs.
Constitutional monarchs have much less political power than the political leadership in their respective countries. Instead, the monarch's role tends to be ceremonial and they have little or nothing to do with day-today political decision-making. This type of monarchy is generally the most common in the modern world.
The differences between absolute and constitutional monarchies can generally be summarized, as follows:
- Absolute monarchs play a direct role in the government of a country, whereas with constitutional monarchies the political leadership comes from a prime minister, or another elected official. Essentially, an absolute monarch is both the political leader and the head of state, whereas a constitutional monarch is just the head of state.
- Absolute monarch are not legally constrained, whereas a constitutional monarchs are legally bound by their country's constitution.
- Both types typically gain their positions through heredity or marriage.
- Both types can also have strong ties, or roles within their country's dominant religion. For example, Queen Elizabeth II is the head of the Church of England.
5 Pros of Absolute Monarchy
- With a single authority figure, decisions can be made quickly and effectively. Collective governments can get bogged down with argument and indecision.
- Heirs to the throne in royal families are raised to rule, so they are fully prepared for rule when it happens.
- Kings and queens are non-partisan, unlike politicians who represent specific groups and need to please these people in order to get elected.
- The expense and uncertainty that elections create is avoided.
- As monarchs rule until they die, rather than just for short, fixed periods, they take a long term view regarding what is best for the country.
5 Cons of Absolute Monarchy
- Democratic accountability is often the biggest problem with monarchs, especially in the modern age. Unlike the politicians in many countries, they are not elected by the people. This means that they can lack legitimacy in the eyes of the people, and they are not answerable to the needs of the broader masses.
- Collective governments bring together the views, ideas, thoughts, of many people. Although they have advisors, kings and queens make all the decisions ultimately and reliant on the thoughts and experiences of just one person.
- Historically, without elections to change leadership, monarchies are troubled by internal power struggles and even violent civil wars. Instability can also occur when a ruler is incapacitated by mental or physical illness.
- Hereditary monarchist systems, where family members inherit the throne, are basically lotteries as far as leadership qualities. The new monarch may have a personality that is entirely incompatible with the role, or they may be personally disinterested in taking on the responsibilities.
- The powers of monarchs and the power of the church are traditionally intertwined, with kings and queens often claiming that their legitimacy derives from God. It is an unhealthy alliance that produced numerous wars in Europe.
5 Pros of Constitutional Monarchy
- Monarchs serve as figureheads, providing a focus and unifying force, bringing countries together and healing divisions.
- Monarchs are apolitical and therefore better suited to representing their countries at state occasions such as remembering war dead, or celebrating social causes, than politicians.
- A royal family provides a sense of continuity and stability that ordinary politicians, who come and go, cannot provide.
- National pride and patriotism is focused on a largely ceremonial figure and is therefore harder for political leaders to exploit.
- Monarchs can stay out of the fray of party politics, and are therefore better to provide a role model or leadership role in times of national emergency or constitutional crisis.
5 Cons of Constitutional Monarchy
- It's a hangover from the olden days when monarchs had absolute power and along with with all the pomp and ceremony is basically out of date.
- Monarchs do not usually serve fixed terms of office, it's a job for life, so regardless of whether people like or dislike how a king or queen rules, they are usually stuck with them until the monarch dies.
- People bowing and curtsying to royalty and the general atmosphere of social hierarchy sets a bad example for any modern society seeking to be egalitarian.
- Monarchy can be expensive. According to statistica.com, the British monarchy cost tax payers £69.4 million in 2020.
- Having an unelected head of state is simply not acceptable in the modern world. Even if they have little political power and their role is mainly ceremonial, people should still be allowed to choose their leader at the ballot box.
A monarchy is the most expensive of all forms of government, the regal state requiring a costly parade, and he who depends on his own power to rule, must strengthen that power by bribing the active and enterprising whom he cannot intimidate.
— James F. Cooper
List of 7 Countries Ruled by an Absolute Monarch
The countries below are ruled by a monarch who rules directly over his or her people. This type of monarch are not elected and have very few, or no restrictions on what they can do.
United Arab Emirates
List of 18 Countries With a Constitutional Monarchy
Constitutional monarchs have little or no real political power. Their role is usually to serve as a ceremonial head of state. Many countries around the world have this form of government.
The best reason why Monarchy is a strong government is, that it is an intelligible government. The mass of mankind understand it, and they hardly anywhere in the world understand any other.
— Walter Bagehot
What royal families are very good at doing is surviving and reinventing themselves. That's true whether it's a constitutional monarchy in Britain or an authoritarian monarchy.
— Robert Lacey
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
Questions & Answers
Question: What are the pros and cons of monarchy in Saudi Arabia?
Answer: Proponents argue that the Saudi royal family provide long-term political stability, and uphold the kingdom's traditional religious and cultural values, in no small part through the employment of Wahhabi religious scholars. Detractors argue that the absolute monarchy is not accountable to its people, promotes and exports Islamic extremism, persecutes women, denies religious freedom for non-Muslims, and uses military forces to invade neighboring countries and crush democratic uprisings.
Question: Are there any modern countries that have an absolute monarchy?
Answer: There are a number of countries that fit this category, five countries in the Middle East: Brunei, Oman, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia; one in Africa: Swaziland; and one in Europe: Vatican City (where the Pope serves as an absolute theocratic elective monarch).
© 2015 Paul Goodman
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