Nov 20th 2014

Philosopher Kings Versus Philosopher Presidents

by Robert Skidelsky

Robert Skidelsky, a member of the British House of Lords, is Professor emeritus of political economy at Warwick University, author of a prize-winning biography of the economist John Maynard Keynes, and a board member of the Moscow School of Political Studies.

LONDON – When I recently met Irish President Michael Higgins – sharing a platform for a speech in which he connected his newly launched “ethics initiative” to a book I co-wrote with my son, How Much is Enough? Money and the Good Life – I was struck by his devotion to thought. Indeed, engaging with ideas is a passion for Ireland’s poet-president – one that more heads of states should take up.

Last May, Higgins told economics students at the University of Chicago that they were studying a deformed discipline, torn from its ethical and philosophical roots. “The recent economic and financial upheavals,” he declared, “have thrown a glaring light on the shortcomings of the intellectual tools provided by mainstream economics and its key assumptions regarding the sustainability of self-regulating markets,” especially “largely unregulated global financial markets.” He then proposed a “critical examination of some of the core assumptions that underpin economics as it is currently taught in university departments across the world.”

What other head of state would be able to pinpoint the deficiencies of economics so accurately, buttressing his arguments with quotations not just from Adam Smith, but also from Max Weber, Thorstein Veblen, and Jürgen Habermas?

Higgins’ experience as an academic and his status as an acclaimed poet undoubtedly give him an advantage over other heads of state, enabling him to hold his own with top thinkers in a way that few others can. More important, however, is his recognition that a political leader should also be a leader of thought and culture for his or her country – and the world. Such intellectual leadership should be a major function of all titular (non-executive) heads of state, an important way for them to “earn their keep.”

Of course, the head of state – whether the president or the monarch – has other critical duties as well, including acting as guarantor of the constitution and a symbol of national unity. Moreover, in proportional voting systems like Italy’s, where no single political party normally wins a majority of seats in parliament, the president often plays a key role in appointing the prime minister. The Italian president can also compel parliamentary deputies to rethink their decisions (in the United Kingdom, the monarch has outsourced this authority to the House of Lords).

But there is also considerable scope for heads of state to behave in accordance with Ecclesiasticus 44:4: “Leaders of the people by their counsels, and by their knowledge of learning meet for the people, wise and eloquent are their instructions.” This is particularly important today, when public discourse in democracies is relentlessly demotic and academic work is increasingly specialized.

Though some scholars and thinkers are fit to be “leaders of the people,” a favorable environment is needed to coax them out of their ivory towers. To this end, an open-minded, culturally literate, and ideas-oriented head of state could play a pivotal role.

Ideally, that head of state would be an elected president, rather than a hereditary monarch. Indeed, anything worthwhile that a monarch can do, an elected non-executive president can do better – not least because an elected official is much less likely to be undermined by the scandals of pampered offspring or degraded by the inevitable hypocrisy and servility of a royal court.

More important, an elected president has much greater legitimacy than a hereditary monarch, whose claim to authority depends exclusively on tradition and ceremony. With a king or queen unable to say or do anything that may cause a whiff of controversy, the monarchy has been stripped of its power of action or reflection.

To be sure, monarchs – and especially their spouses, heirs, and relations – often carve out niches for themselves, from wildlife protection to sports and charities. (Architecture has proved distinctly risky, as Prince Charles learned after launching jeremiads against modernism.) Monarchs and their courts can, to some extent, still act as leaders of art, music, and fashion, as they did in the eighteenth century. But this role has atrophied with the rising expectation that they should be “normal,” representing their populations’ habits and tastes as closely as possible.

An elected president has a stronger mandate to be controversial, especially in areas of thought and culture that lie beyond the domain of quotidian politics but shape the quality of the public space in which politics plays out. It would be inconceivable for a reigning monarch to attack the financial oligarchy, as Higgins did in his speech in Chicago.

Even in 1936, when King Edward VIII of Britain declared that “something must be done” about unemployment, he was criticized for overstepping his brief. Yet, in May, Higgins declared that his position as head of state compelled him “to represent the experience and hardships of the Irish people” in the years since economic crisis befell them.

But the most important reason why an elected president is better equipped than a monarch to catalyze a public conversation about a society’s values and priorities is that he or she is more likely to be a person of superior ability. Indeed, that is why, on balance, a meritocratic system will always produce better results than a hereditary one.

Monarchs today are reared to be ordinary, as suits their diminished role in national life. But democratic countries need symbols of the extraordinary if they are not to sink into permanent mediocrity.


Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2014.
www.project-syndicate.org

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Jan 10th 2009

What is to be made of the sordid little case of seat selling by Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich? Not much, judging from reactions in the US.

Jan 10th 2009

Only yesterday, it seems, we were bemoaning the high price of oil.

Jan 8th 2009

America is in shock. It is not because of the unusual sight of the first black president taking up residence in the White House.

Jan 6th 2009

NEW YORK - A consensus now exists that America's recession - already a year old - is likely to be long and deep, and that almost all countries will be affected.

Jan 6th 2009

Israel's ongoing and decisive military response to Hamas' continuing rocket
attacks should have been anticipated by the organization's leadership. Yet it
seems they have badly miscalculated the Israelis' sentiment and resolve. They

Jan 5th 2009

The horrors that are unfolding in Gaza are but a tragic replay of past confrontations: the same bluster and threats, the same miscalculations by all sides, the same massive and overwhelming use of Israeli force designed to "stop once and for all...," and same absence of any constructive U.S

Jan 4th 2009

It has long been of concern that the vigorous public debate that rages in Israel is not replicated either among American Jewish organizations or policy makers in Washington.

Jan 2nd 2009

In order to get beyond the stunningly superficial analyses of the Israeli-Hamas conflict one might find on MSNBC's Morning Joe, I called up Zbigniew Brzezinski -- former national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter, Obama supporter and eminence gris of

Dec 31st 2008

Amman - Wasted time is always to be regretted. But in the Middle East, wasting time is also dangerous. Another year has now passed with little progress in bridging the divide between Palestinians and Israelis.

Dec 30th 2008

MOSCOW - "Owing to the harsh economic situation, it was decided to cut off the light at the end of the tunnel as a temporary measure." That is but one of the jokes making the rounds in Russia these days, as the country faces its most severe crisis in a decade.

Dec 26th 2008

LONDON - So what does 2009 hold in store for us? As ever, the unpredictable - a terrorist atrocity or a rash decision by a national leader - will take its toll. But much of what happens tomorrow will be a result of history.

Dec 25th 2008

WASHINGTON, DC - Since its Islamist revolution of 1979, Iran's hardline leadership has relentlessly painted America as a racist, bloodthirsty power bent on oppressing Muslims worldwide.

Dec 19th 2008

It was considered a huge step towards the attainment of international justice.

Dec 19th 2008

NEW YORK - At a time when the headlines are filled with financial crises and violence, it is especially important to recognize the creativity of many governments in fighting poverty, disease, and hunger.

Dec 18th 2008

Beijing is waging economic warfare against Washington. But as is the Chinese wont, it is using traditional guerrilla asymmetrical tactics in what is more than a little fog of war.

Dec 16th 2008

PRINCETON - Throughout his tenure as South Africa's president, Thabo Mbeki rejected the scientific consensus that AIDS is caused by a virus, HIV, and that antiretroviral drugs can save the lives of people who test positive for it.

Dec 15th 2008

WASHINGTON, DC - America's opening to China by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger in 1971-1972 was a historic breakthrough.

Dec 12th 2008

NEW YORK - The latest macroeconomic news from the United States, other advanced economies, and emerging markets confirms that the global economy will face a severe recession in 2009.

Dec 11th 2008

NEW YORK - It has become popular to suggest that when the dust settles from the global financial crisis, it may become clear that the United States-led post-war world has come to an end.

Dec 10th 2008

Renewable energy sources, such as wind, direct solar power, hydroelectric power, and biomass and the biofuels derived from it may be the basis for future civilization.