This Week’s Abdication of a Monarch in Perspective

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If I had a twitter account, and could send a message to Africans this week, it will read as follows. This week, a uniquely historic event has occurred on the other end of the world that should be of instruction to all of us. On Tuesday, April 30, 2019, Japan’s 85-year-old monarch, Emperor Akihito abdicated the Chrysanthemum Throne — the oldest continuous hereditary monarchy in the world. Akihito took over the throne thirty years ago in 1989. His son, Crown Prince Naruhito, 59, will be inaugurated as the 126th emperor Wednesday.

And why a tweet of this kind? What exactly makes this a unique event? Why should it be of instruction to all of us? Is it that one of the world’s economic power houses was having a peaceful transfer of power? To be sure, a peaceful transfer of power is most definitely newsworthy! And especially so for Africans–since rarely does such an event happen in the continent. Yet, the story of the voluntary abdication of the Japanese emperor has an even greater instructional value than an exemplar of a peaceful transfer of power. As uncommon as it is in Africa, that happens routinely in many parts of the world.

From my perspective, the most important instructional value from this story is that by abdicating the throne, Akihito becomes the first Japanese monarch in modern history to do so. The last emperor to abdicate was Kokaku, in 1817, more than two hundred years ago.

In other words, voluntary abdications of this kind are rarities indeed. They are not ones in a lifetime event. Rather, they are once in hundreds of years events.

The moral of the story here is that power is not something that people frequently acquire and voluntarily give up. After all, the transfer of power here is from father to Son—not a great distance at all. And if that is a rarity, then….

Sudan and Egypt are cases in point. The military just took over power in Sudan and insists that it is there transitionally. The Egyptian president came to power after a forceful removal of an elected leader. He now seeks to change the rules so that he can stay for ten more years. But just ten more years? ….

Here, I again quote from one of my favorite novelists, George Orwell, who nicely put it well over half a century ago in his now classic political satire, 1984: “We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means, it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.” (Italics added).

It follows that, as part of organized government, voluntary abdication of power requires constructive and thoughtful planning, especially on the part of the governed. It requires a mechanism in place that does not simply rest on the qualities (goodness/character/patriotism…) of individuals.

An excerpt that Robert Higgs Argues “comes close to being a short course in political science” (https://mises.org/library/if-men-were-angels) comes to mind. Writing in The Federalist No. 51 more than two hundred years ago in defense of a proposed U.S. national constitution that would establish a structure of “checks and balances between the different departments” of the government and, as a result, constrain the government’s oppression of the public,  James Madison observed that:

  • The great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.  (Italics added).

Some key phrases from this quote include the following. “The great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others.” (Emphasis aded). Yes, personal motives! And: “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” And: “The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place.”

Moreover, Since men and women are not angels, a key operative word is “oblige.” Any necessary restraint on men and women must be external to individuals. This means an a-priori mechanism in place that restrains.

Madison adds: “A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.” Here again, the operative part of this phrase being “the necessity of auxiliary precautions.” If nothing else, experience has taught so.

By Mamadi Corra, Ph.D.

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