A monarchy is a form of government in which the office of head of state is hereditary, usually passed down from father to son. Monarchies were once the most common form of government in the world. These are rare today, with some countries remaining constitutional monarchies and only a few remaining absolute monarchies.
Characteristics of Monarchies
Not all monarchies are identical in their form of government. Modern-day monarchies are typically constitutional monarchies, in which the monarch remains a titular head of state, but a head of government, such as a prime minister, actually governs. Absolute monarchies are much rarer. In an absolute monarchy, the monarch is the true ruler, and the government exists largely to implement his decisions. This form of government was common in many different parts of the world for most of human history. In the late 18th century, democracies became more common, spreading throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.
Strengths of Absolute Monarchies
An absolute monarchy has a number of strengths compared to other forms of government. The concentration of power in the hands of a single individual means that decisions can be reached quickly if the monarch is decisive, rather than being slowed by debate. A king, caliph, emperor or similar figure also provides a rallying point for the populace and a focus for patriotism; many people find a human figure easier to identify with than an abstract concept or symbol. Clearly-defined succession rules also help with an orderly transfer of power, ensuring continuity between governments.
Strengths of Constitutional Monarchies
Constitutional monarchies combine a hereditary head of state with a nonhereditary government, usually democratically-elected. In a constitutional monarchy, the monarch provides a focus for patriotism as in an absolute monarchy. Unlike a pure democracy, this means that the government has a politically-neutral face not associated with a particular party or ideology. Monarchs can assist with foreign diplomacy and cultural relations without necessarily committing the government to a course of action. Additionally, the glamour associated with monarchy can be beneficial to tourism.
Weaknesses of Monarchies
An absolute monarchy can lead to poor decision-making since being the offspring of a previous monarch is no guarantee that the successor is fit for the job. Because policy is based on the monarch's own views, it may shift radically from one monarch to another. In a constitutional monarchy, these weaknesses are not present. However, even a constitutional monarchy involves a public endorsement of the principle of hereditary privilege, which may have negative effects on society.
Dr James Holloway has been writing about games, geek culture and whisky since 1995. A former editor of "Archaeological Review from Cambridge," he has also written for Fortean Times, Fantasy Flight Games and The Unspeakable Oath. A graduate of Cambridge University, Holloway runs the blog Gonzo History Gaming.