What is the role of the British monarch? Since the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the role has been almost exclusively symbolic. But symbols have power to define a nation, give sustenance to a culture, and strengthen its institutions. Recent discussions about the legacy of Queen Elizabeth II are an excellent demonstration.
Her long reign of 70 years has figured prominently in these discussions. Fifteen Prime Ministers came and went with political fad and fashion, but she remained. In her enduring way, she provided a sense of stability, calm, and intergenerational unity. As Britain struggled to find its identity in a post-empire world, she helped her people locate the “spirit and the soul of the country.” (Not bad for a symbolic figurehead!)
Her lasting has become her legacy, her surviving her symbolism. However, an important nuance is missing here. It gets to her profound economic symbolism which could help Britain (and the rest of us) navigate the current economic culture wars. Quite simply, Queen Elizabeth reigned for so long because she lived for so long.
Is this too mundane to state? I think not. One commentator asserted that it is very hard to separate the queen from the experiences of her people. This is amply true regarding her long life. Her long life is a reflection of her people’s. It was not the product of unimaginable wealth, but ordinary wealth—not royal privilege, but common privilege. Longevity is all of Britain’s inheritance.
As Marxist ideology threatens our institutions today, it is important to appreciate a historical lesson. A well-lived and long-lived life owes itself to Britain’s lead in finding the right liberal institutions for economic growth. This marvelous economic history runs squarely through the history of the monarchs, and Queen Elizabeth’s long life should remind us of it.
Life Expectancy Across Time
In 1651, Thomas Hobbes famously characterized life as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” The royals may have avoided the solitary and poor life, but they could not avoid a nasty, brutish, and short one.
Royal life was, indeed, short. From Henry II (born 1133) until George I (born 1660), monarchs’ average lifespan was fifty years. But when including childhood mortality of royals, average life expectancy was hardly better than that of commoners tilling fields in Sussex—the high 20s to low 30s—with little to no improvement over these years.
Royal life was also nasty. Death frequently came by dysentery, smallpox, pneumonia, and tuberculosis. Add in conditions such as bleeding ulcers, syphilis, scurvy, and disorders of the skin, kidney, and mind. It is clear that royal living was always mixed with dying, pleasures with pains. The portrait of a graceful death by “natural causes” is a modern one.
Royal life was also brutish. Roughly 60 percent of royal children died before the age of five—a rate worse than their subjects! Royals tended to live in urban areas. Urbanity meant disease. By trying to overcome a solitary existence, they invited a brutish one. Unimaginable wealth still ended in entirely imaginable deaths.
Then the pattern changed in the early part of the 1700s—and abruptly so. From King George II (born 1683) until Queen Elizabeth II (died 2022), the average lifespan of a monarch jumped to a remarkable 74 years. Take away overachiever Elizabeth and the average is little affected.
Importantly, the same jump is also seen among the aristocracy, who suddenly earned a seven-year life premium. Commoners followed thereafter. Today, the average life expectancy again displays the “parity of prince and pauper.”
How did Britain become healthy? How then did much of the rest of the world? We have compelling answers to these questions. They constitute what might be called the greatest story ever told. It turns out that to understand why King George II got old is to understand how the world became modern.
The Greatest Story Ever Told
Superficially, the Industrial Revolution is how Britain became radically healthy. It ushered in a spirit and capacity for innovation which has endured. However, the occurrence of the Industrial Revolution does not explain why it occurred, why it endured, and why it started in Britain. Moreover, it is a late arrival to the story. Arkwright’s water-powered cotton wheel only appeared in 1769, Watt’s efficient steam engine in 1776, and Jenner’s improvement on smallpox inoculations in 1798.
A favored prelude to the stories of inventors focuses on England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688. The new “constitutional” conditions set upon William and Mary shifted powers from the monarch to Parliament, granting it greater legislative authority and financial control. A series of dramatic changes ensued.
With its new legislative power, Parliament overcame stifling ancient legal customs, permitting easier exchange of land and consolidation of farms for commercial and public projects. On fiscal matters, a commercial-minded Parliament avoided crippling taxes and internal tariffs. It also stabilized lending markets by making debt repayment credible. Britain soon enjoyed an unprecedented “state capacity,” or ability to raise revenue and govern. It used this capacity for necessary defense and its transformative canal and road system. No other state could take on so much.
In all fairness, these institutional advances and wise actions met with other favorable factors for growth, each serendipitously converging on this time and place. England had skilled craftspeople at the ready and weak guilds, which were unable to restrict competition. It had a society with a taste for consumption and a new preference for industriousness over traditional idleness. It had a culture that had overcome moral aversions and challenges to impersonal commerce, and it had a rich network of Enlightenment thinkers building the structure for innovation. It also had a geography suited for taking a leading role in the Atlantic trade.
Many countries had one or more of these likely factors, but only Britain had all of them (and more). Having all was likely necessary. Thus, after a 17th century of revolutionary fervor, Britain stumbled into modernity with some enlightened liberality and the luck of a Simplicius Simplicissimus (a 17th century Forrest Gump).
The Disputed Symbol of the Monarch
Critics counter that the queen represented Britain’s colonial history, and that this brutal resource was the cause of Britain’s success. Economic historians diligently explore this possibility. Estimates are that international trade was just a small part of Britain’s economy, and colonial trade even smaller—perhaps no more than 2 percent of GDP at the start of the century (and in the wrong industries to explain the Industrial Revolution). Nonetheless, colonialism likely had important indirect effects—transforming ports into dynamic cities, thickening markets, and stimulating network effects.
It may be fair to say that colonialism was significant but just one of several additives to the new “engine” which was Britain’s new legal framework. It is this engine which broke Britain out of a predictable cycle. Monarchs around the globe had always turned economic capacities (and ill-gotten gains) into their “curse.” They had confiscated their people’s treasure, reneged on debts, infringed on rights, and capriciously taken elites’ property. At the same time, cronies to the crown had managed to stifle competition, squash new ideas, and choke exchange. “Efflorescences” of growth have always wilted.
Britain’s new institutions protected its people enough to give them the confidence to employ their resources and to invest in their ideas. In this new “open-access-order,” the long suppressed inventiveness of humans became the true fuel for change.
As people in Western societies abandon faith in these liberal institutions, they jeopardize well-being. The symbol of the monarch should remind us of the improbability, marvelousness, and fragility of our fortune. The monarch’s weakness turned into Britain’s strength. Vacating the monarch’s role filled the British people’s bellies and showed the world the way.
Long Live the King
Whether royal or commoner, life and death have been fundamentally different since 1700. It is now possible to expect a life of extreme wealth and extreme health, a life full of future orientation, optimism, self-investment, and meaningful aging. It is possible to expect a graceful death by “old age,” or at least to live long enough to die by the modern ailments of cancer and heart disease brought on by smoking and a rich diet.
In May, King Charles III will be crowned. At age 74, he is already older than any monarch prior to the 1700s. I expect that his age will likely not figure into upcoming discourses in any positive way. It should. His predictable achievement of a long life reflects ours. Raise a glass and celebrate the crowning of this figure whose historical reconfiguration into mere symbol helped make the world modern. Long live the King! Long live modern capitalism!