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Our Elective Monarchy


One of the myths Americans live by is that they rejected monarchy when the British left involuntarily in the late 18th century. Had a Martian been visiting the United States last week, he never would have believed it. Witnessing the state funeral and worshipful wall-to-wall cable-television coverage, our Martian would have sworn that Ronald Reagan had been the king of America. The visitor wouldnt have been far off the mark. The Washington Post called it a funeral fit for a king.

The procession down Constitution Avenue, horse-drawn caisson, riderless horse, 21-gun salute, and showy military display all culminated in Reagans lying in state under the Capitol dome. It all served to glorify not only the former president, but the State itself. For several days Ronald Reagan was the State. (Selective memory helps, for example, the memory that Reagan was an unreconstructed cold warrior. Youd never know from the past week that he retracted the evil empire charge when he warmed up to Gorbachev.)

This isnt just about Reagan. Any president is treated like royalty in the United States. To see this, compare the treatment of the prime minister of Britain. Look at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and No. 10 Downing Street. If you say, But the United States is the leading power in the world, youre beginning to get my point. The unconstitutional aggrandizement of the national government in general, and the presidency in particular, is part of the cause; the royal treatment of the president the effect.

The very structure of the national government contains the potential for a monarchical president, but it took the accretion of power to actualize that potential. The comparison with Britain is instructive. Great Britains government is a parliamentary system under a monarchy. Thus the head of state and the head of government are different people. Whatever its drawbacks, it has a salutary effect, namely, that the head of government is not immune to rough handling.

The Parliaments vigorous questioning of the prime minister is the most public manifestation of this feature of the British government. Elected officials grill the chief executive, who is one of their own, and he must answer. People could not be aware of this without forming a down-to-earth image of the prime minister and without feeling that, given the chance, they too would be justified in grilling him about, say, their potholes. But they would not think of grilling the queen.

Some Americans are fascinated by this treatment of the prime minister and view it religiously on C-SPAN. Why? Because nothing like it happens here. Americas central government has a separation of powers with three co-equal branches, yet also with (theoretical) checks and balances. Congress cannot require the president to submit to questioning. (This provides continuing controversy, such as the recent negotiation over National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rices testimony under oath before the congressionally created 9/11 commission.) Cabinet officials are sometimes questioned bluntly, but that only serves to underscore how different the president is. The news media get to question the president at his pleasure, but, for a variety of reasons, do so with kid gloves.

Of course, there is no monarch, so the president is both head of state and head of government. And that means he gets the queens treatment.

The people, most of whom believe it when they are told they need a leader, could hardly fail to notice.

It all comes to a head when a president dies, especially if he has requested a state funeral. At that point the State brings out all the signs of its majesty and mystique, especially the military. Maybe this satisfies some need in people. But one thing is sure: it notifies them that, notwithstanding the jabber about of the people, by the people, for the people, the State is in charge. Nothing that awesome could be under their control. What we have is an elective monarch who, if we are to believe the current wearer of the crown, rules by divine right.

Its hard to imagine now what a presidential funeral would be like had the government maintained its intended constitutional dimensions. He was to be merely the chief executive. It probably would resemble that of the president of free, prosperous, reclusive, and cantonal Switzerland.

Can you name him?

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.