by Bobby Marsland
On November 18, our campus was graced with a visit from His Serene Highness, Prince Hans-Adams II of Liechtenstein. The Prince traveled here to visit the Liechtenstein Institute for Self-Determination, which was founded in 2000 with his support, and to receive the American Whig-Cliosophic Society’s prestigious James Madison Award. Besides being one of Western Europe’s last remaining monarchs, His Highness is also a serious political theorist, and his talk at the Whig-Clio award luncheon centered on the themes of his new book, The State in the Third Millennium.
As the name of his Institute suggests, Hans-Adams’ political philosophy is based on the idea of “self-determination.” He believes that popular consent is the only mechanism by which 21st century Westerners can recognize a legitimate government, and this self-determination of political authority should be executed at the lowest possible level; in other words, each city or village should decide how it wants to be ruled. In this way, there is a real possibility for individuals to have a say in the decision-making process, and no community is trapped in a form of government it does not approve simply by accident of where it is located. A close corollary to this principle is the importance of decentralization – as many government functions as possible should be run on the village level, and decided by direct democracy.
While these ideas may all sound quite attractive, politics ultimately has to be about practical realities, and so the real test comes in the implementation of these concepts. Hans-Adams’ royal throne has given him the opportunity to carry out this test in his own principality of 35,000 subjects. Each of the 11 villages of Liechtenstein actually does bear responsibility for many governmental roles, and can decide by popular vote to secede at any time. The more interesting aspect of the country’s constitution, however, is its solution to the perennial problem of faction. In 2003, Prince Hans-Adams pushed through a constitutional amendment that gives him absolute veto power over all legislative decisions. As he stressed in his talk, this power is important because it allows him to override the injustices that are so easily perpetrated by the majority against the minority in any democracy.
True to his principle of democratic legitimation, Hans-Adams included in the amendment a provision that allows the people of Liechtenstein to abolish the monarchy by a simple majority vote at any time (the one exception to his veto power). The move was still worrying, however, to many in Liechtenstein and in the rest of Western Europe. It marked a decisive abandonment of the modern distrust of authority, and a return to the medieval practice of relying on the personal character of the hereditary ruler to establish justice in the kingdom.
From another angle, though, this decision should not seem so strange. In fact, it is not so different from the current arrangement in our own country. Since the Civil Rights Movement, it has become an accepted fact in American political life that the Supreme Court is the final recourse for overturning unjust decisions of the majority. We have recognized that, at least in extreme cases, even a successful republic needs a trusted voice of authority independent of the people to stop them from over-reaching. In some ways, our Justices, once they have been nominated and confirmed, are even more insulated than His Serene Highness, for they cannot be deposed by a simple referendum.
But why do the Liechtensteiners not abolish the monarchy, if they are so worried about the Prince’s expansive new powers? Alternatively, why don’t any of the villages use their right of secession? These hyper-libertarian aspects of the new constitution seem sure to undermine the stability of the political system. The fact that Hans-Adams can afford to give the people such great liberty without dissolving his principality provides an excellent example of the great paradox of traditional conservative thought: authority and tradition are the foundation of liberty. The people of Liechtenstein say they do not want to lose their royal house because it forms such a vital part of their identity. Rooted to their country by tradition, and united in their voluntary recognition of the authority of the monarch, they are free to govern themselves without fear of fragmentation and division. There is no need for the Prince to demand submission by force, or keep all governmental functions under his direct supervision, because he can trust the people to remain faithful to him of their own free will, and to make responsible decisions in the conduct of their own civic affairs.
The Liechtensteiners’ decision thus adds a new twist to the debate between conservatives and libertarians that has raged within the Republican Party for decades. Liechtenstein is now simultaneously the most libertarian state and the most traditional monarchy in the Western world. Libertarians need to face the fact that their political ideals of decentralization and shrinking of government are only possible if the people share a strong tradition that leads them to voluntarily bind themselves to their community, their nation, and their rulers. America has historically possessed a strong tradition of rule of law, ordered liberty, and civic duty, which is still alive today. If libertarians are really dedicated to the practical implementation of their principles, they need to do what they can to nourish this tradition. Prince Hans-Adams shows us that the firmest common ground for a new libertarian-conservative coalition lies precisely in this joint commitment to the revitalization and deepening of the great ideals and institutions that have formed and sustained our nation.