Have you ever heard the story of Emperor Norton? It’s one of those bizarre little curiosities of American history, the San Franciscan who declared himself Emperor of the United States (and sometime Protector of Mexico) in 1859 and remarkably found that many of the inhabitants of his home city accepted him as such. He never achieved any real political power in his lifetime, but made himself a nice living as the Emperor, eating for free in the city’s best restaurants (to whom he granted an Imperial seal of approval), getting balcony seats at the theatre and opera, and being saluted by the city’s police officers when he was on his daily walk around the city, inspecting its infrastructure.
I was reading about him recently, and that got me thinking about the British monarchy and how it could benefit from exposure to the free market.
For me, Emperor Norton was the first free market monarch – realising that the people felt the need for an Imperial ruler, he chose to fill that gap in the market and managed it with a remarkable degree of success – and it occurs to me that the idea of free market monarchy isn’t something we should leave in the nineteenth century.
I’m a republican in that I’d like to see the UK – like many other states – have a head of state who’s the elected representative of the people rather than the latest scion of an aristocratic family getting the job by an accident of birth. (My personal preference is for a non-executive ceremonial President in the same vein as Germany or Ireland, but the mechanics of any future republic are a debate for another time) However, I don’t have any objections to the Royal Family as people and neither do I have any objection to them using the titles associated with royalty. I just don’t feel that it’s any business of the state’s as to what people choose to call themselves.
My proposal is simple – in a future United Republic (or United Former Kingdom, perhaps?) the monarchy would be disestablished rather than abolished. The Royal Family would be free to continue living the life of royalty, but there would be no compulsion on anyone else to recognise their titles or nobility. So, people like me could happily ignore their activities (in as much as the activities of any ubercelebrities can be ignored) while those people who wished to could still be ardent royalists and go to see them doing whatever it is they do. As Emperor Norton showed, if someone with just a hat with a rosette on can make a living as an Emperor, life shouldn’t be too hard for the Windsors.
But where does the free market come into this? Well, with the monarchy disestablished and the state washing its hands of any role in the determination of supposedly noble status, the market would be open for anyone to declare themselves a monarch, a duke, an earl or whatever else they wanted to be. Whether they fail or succeed as monarchs and nobles would be up to the market to decide – if people want to follow King Bob from down the road, give him gifts and pay him royal levies that’s entirely for them to decide. Instead of buying football teams, bored billionaires could declare themselves monarchs and stage great pageants to garner support for themselves. ITV could run Royal Idol in an attempt to find the ‘People’s Royal Family’ – the possibilities are endless, really. Think of the explosion of websites and magazines tracking and rating the activities of the various royal families, think of the benefits to tourism as they flock to see the new monarchs in action (‘Come to Britain and get three Queens for the price of one!’) – yet again, we’ll see the economic benefits of opening up a state monopoly to the competition of the market.