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.