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

Nov 3rd 2008

Conventional wisdom has it that one of the few ways left for John McCain to win the presidency is for a national security crisis to intervene before election day.

Nov 2nd 2008

NEW YORK - This global economic crisis will go down in history as Greenspan's Folly. This is a crisis made mainly by the United States Federal Reserve Board during the period of easy money and financial deregulation from the mid-1990's until today.

Oct 31st 2008

Shanghai-When scholars from all across China gathered here recently to assess their country's role in the afterglow of the Olympics, their pride shone as bright as the waxing Autumn Festival moon.

Oct 31st 2008

Now that the rock bottom of the global financial crisis has been visited, it is time to stop running with the lemmings and start thinking.

One of the best places to do this is the OECD.

Oct 28th 2008

NEW YORK - The winner of America's presidential election will inherit a perfect storm of problems, both economic and international. He will face the most difficult opening-day agenda of any president since - and I say this in all seriousness - the man who saved the Union, Abraham Lincoln.

Oct 28th 2008

The free market apostates continue to battle the market. The corporate sector has beaten a hasty retreat. Credit, frozen globally, is being edged out by capital injections into various financial institutions.

Oct 27th 2008

Wang Hui, China’s leading “new left” intellectual and the former editor of the prestigious journal, Dushu, is author of The Rise of Modern Chinese Thought, the seminal historical work on the subject.

Oct 27th 2008

In a world of unexpected crises and unanticipated consequences, the new president of the United States is as likely as his predecessors in the past to face almost immediate and overwhelming crisis or crises come January.

Oct 25th 2008

The recovery of the earth's climate from the little ice age started about 200 years ago, but the concentration of the atmospheric carbon dioxide started to increase significantly as late as in the 1950s, probably due to rapidly increased burning of fossil fuels.

Oct 24th 2008

The US presidential candidates are warbling about what strategies will best suit Afghanistan in a post-Bush world. Both Barack Obama and John McCain promise that the interminable conflict will be of "top priority" come 2009.

Oct 24th 2008

" The more actors there are who can read the signs of an approaching crisis, the less serious will be the consequences when the crisis breaks out."

Oct 21st 2008

Los Angeles-Newsweek columnist Fareed Zakaria has labeled the world ahead a "post-American world." I do get a very strong sense that conditions in the global economy are changing in very dramatic ways.

Oct 17th 2008

The late Glenn Gould made some powerful enemies in the music world when he decided to record Bach's Goldberg Variations at a slow tempo. He also made music history.

Oct 17th 2008

The Waki commission, charged with the task of investigating post-election violence in the aftermath of the Kenyan elections last December, has called for a special tribunal to try various perpetrators.

Oct 13th 2008

There are two schools of thought on what the election of a new US president will mean for transatlantic relations. The optimists argue that relations will improve significantly.

Oct 13th 2008

Nathan Gardels: Let's talk first about the nature of the crisis.

Oct 13th 2008

The anticipated catcalls from Beijing and Moscow - as well as the usual suspects in the British and Continental and Indian leftwing media - had hardly echoed when the truth dawned on them.

Oct 5th 2008

My sister died a year ago after a 13-year bout with various cancers. She had been cut to pieces by surgeons - mastectomy, hysterectomy, the lot -- but somehow she always managed to return to her productive normal role as wife and mother.