It makes sense to be a Republican in Australia. It seems eminently logical: after all why shouldn’t the Head of State of Australia be Australian? Moreover, shouldn’t we have a system that doesn’t simply allow people to be born into power? Born into power? What an ancient - and ridiculous - concept. The "divine right of kings"? Isn't that an outdated religious notion? Democracy: the idea that the people vote for the best leader based on merit, is surely preferable. And modern. And good.
Those conservatives - and worse - those conservative monarchists must simply be set in their ways. There are no good arguments for the monarchy. And in 1999, when I voted "Yes" for a Republic in the Referendum on this issue, I heard all the arguments. And as I heard them they were weak. "Don’t fix what is not broken" seemed to be the refrain. Others argued in return: the horse and buggy were never broken. They were simply superseded: taken over by a better, more modern way of doing things. So too it must be with governments and systems of democracy. Sometimes things might still work, but nevertheless we can improve things.
Since that time I’ve read more. And interacted with more people. Not about the law, or politics so much: but philosophy and how knowledge is constructed. Here is something remarkable: So much of what we know is inexplicit. We find it very difficult to put into words much of what we know. Here’s a way of thinking about explicit versus inexplicit knowledge:
A good chef has lots and lots of explicit knowledge. If the recipe is written reasonably well, then most anyone can replicate their dish to a very high degree of accuracy with the right tools and ingredients. Indeed this was the basis for a competition on the television reality show “Masterchef”. What happens is that a professional chef with some complicated dish shows some amateur cooks their special creation. Then the cooks get the recipe from the chef. What always surprised me, was no matter how complicated, the cooks managed to get there - and replicate the complicated dish - quite well. The words alone - with some visual cues - enabled unorganised ingredients to come together often in highly complex artistic ways of presenting food. That knowledge about how to cook is highly, highly explicit.
But now consider the great tennis player Roger Federer. He must know lots about how to play tennis really well and serve the ball - and return it - better than almost anyone who has ever lived. But if he was just to use some words to try to explain to you how to serve a ball - you’d never manage it. Even if you spend a whole day watching him and talking to him - though you’d perhaps get a little better, chances are your serve would look nothing like Roger Federer’s serve. Yes: there’s genetics involved, some sort of “innate” capabilities that his body has that yours may not. But still: you really would show very little improvement over the course of a day.
So there is inexplicit knowledge that Roger Federer has about tennis. You have inexplicit knowledge too: perhaps you know how to drive a car. It feels a certain way. Or a bike: how to balance. You just know how to balance. You can explain some, but not all. Words capture it somewhat. But not all of it. People don't learn to ride bikes from reading books - but they can learn to bake cakes. But the point is: just because you cannot articulate precisely how, using words, how to ride a bike, doesn’t mean your bike riding is somehow especially dubious. There are some things we can explain with words - explicit knowledge- like a recipe - or scientific theories. But there exist other things like how to serve a tennis ball really well, or ride a bike or play a piece of music well - these are inexplicit. That kind of knowledge is not all easily articulated. Some is, much is not. I've written a fair bit more about inexplicit vs explicit knowledge here in another context.
Another thing about “knowledge” in terms of where it might be found as well as of what kind it is. For example, we all know it can appear in our minds, because we know things. Knowledge also appears in books. And in computers. But while in a mind it's represented by electricity flowing along neurones in our brains, in books it's ink on paper. In computers: on silicon chips. Knowledge is a rather strange kind of "substance" - it's abstract: the physical stuff that represents it can be completely different from one situation to the next - but the knowledge itself can be the same. Knowledge can even appear in systems. For example: the knowledge of the physics of how light and glass interact is “instantiated” (so we say) in a telescope. “Instantiate” means something like “appears there in a certain form” or “represented within”. So although there can be a book written all about the physics of light and in that form it's basically - physically speaking - ink on paper (it's this which is “instantiating” the knowledge) - that same knowledge can be instantiated in an actual physical thing like a telescope.
So complex things like telescopes can instantiate the very explicit knowledge of how to gather and then focus light.
But what does any of this have to do with the republican vs constitutional monarchy debate? This is the thing about societies: as a rule, historically, they are terribly unstable things. We live at an unusually peaceful time - notwithstanding the chaos in various places. But we shouldn't forget how badly wrong things can go. The author Douglas Murray likes to think of societies as "fragile ecosystems" and I think that's quite right. The majority of societies and whole civilisations throughout all of human history have fallen into chaos and ruin and disappeared from the face of the planet. Whole empires and nations and city-states. Human beings have tried a very many different kinds of ways of organising, ordering and running societies: absolute monarchs, democracies where people work in coalitions, democracies where the person at the top has more or less power. Many kinds of democracies. Many kinds of unelected tyrannies. Democracy is, of course, no perfect shield against tyranny and disaster: indeed we may well say democracy is a kind of tyranny. The tyranny of the many over the few. And of course we have seen famously in many places democracy turned against itself - Nazi Germany of course - but one need not go so far back in history. The nations of South America are testimony to the instability of democracy, as is the continent of Africa. Coups and violent overthrowing of parliaments. But is any of this an argument against democracy? Not really. We should keep Winston Churchill in mind who has attributed to him words to the effect: “Democracy is the worst form of government. Except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
The point there is this: while there is no better system than democracy that we know of, it is terribly imperfect. It is liable to fall into chaos and even tyranny if we are not very careful about how it is set up and run. Given the chance, as Sam Harris has observed, some people will quickly democratically elect to vote away their rights and democracy itself. We might reasonably wonder right now as I write this in 2017, if this is not indeed happening in many places the world over. Democracy is fragile. A fragile system for organising the fragile ecosystems that are modern societies.
So with these dangers looming over any society at any time, what can we do? Surely we should look at what actually works? What systems have been stable over time? In particular what systems allow stability under change? That, despite huge changes and challenges have nonetheless not suffered terrible chaos or tyranny. We can look to the United States perhaps: a great nation of relatively stable democracy. Relatively: they did have a civil war, of course so great internal violence within that system is not unknown. There have been hiccups. But it is certainly a beacon to look to. Where else? Let us look to England: a democracy of a different kind. There the Head of State is not elected, that position has far less power than that of the American President (who is both Head of State and Head of the Government and, for example, can launch nuclear weapons) but there we have a particularly remarkable degree of great stability. The British System is ancient - one might presume stretching back to the Magna Carta of 1215 and before. But why - why should these places be especially stable and others not? We cannot articulate all the reasons. Both instantiate inexplicit knowledge: their traditions and customs contain within them rules about how to keep a society “stable under change”. Great change. Dynamic societies are the rare exception: most societies that have ever been have been “static” - they have not made great progress. But England - for example - led the industrial revolution. Science made great leaps there. Society itself underwent great changes and democracy reached its most inclusive form with the head of state having among the most diluted of powers. And yet the system of governance itself weathered all that came - including a brief period of republicanism from 1649-1660. Notwithstanding all that, the system has persisted and thrived. It was the framework within which so much change took place safely and to the net benefit of all in that great nation. David Deutsch explains in "The Beginning of Infinity" that a "tradition" has - until now - always been a way of preventing things from changing. Traditions are usually the ways things are done so that things remain more or less static. But in modern "dynamic" societies there is now a different kind of tradition - a unique and powerful one - a "tradition of criticism". That is a monumental difference between a tradition we have and the traditions of the past. It is a tradition that allows for change. And how that tradition works exactly - what the conditions in a society are that allow for that are not easy to articulate. There must be some other traditions and customs in a society that allows a tradition of criticism to flourish. Those other traditions: preconditions for creating that favourable environment for progress - are not easily articulated. Were they, we would more easily export our peaceful democracies to places like North Korea and Iran and Russia. But it is not easy to explain.
So, now to Australia and our Constitutional Monarchy. It has clearly allowed stability under great change. It has actually worked. The nation can be a dynamic and changing one, but the type of democracy itself allows for that change to occur while the whole project remains in place, functioning and thriving. The system we have embodies knowledge - of an inexplicit sort - of how to keep the nation stable. Those customs and traditions of democracy that we have actually work. We know some of the reasons but we cannot articulate all of them. Should we change this? Can we improve it? Perhaps we could. But how? We do not know why it works and so we cannot know how to improve systems we do not fully understand. So we could change things, and intend to improve them, but we might be completely mistaken and cause damage instead. Rather than an automobile replacing a horse and buggy we should think instead: a vibrant and healthy person who is then offered the chance to take a drug which has not been tried before and for which no explanation is given as to how it might work. Yet, an "expert" assures you: this drug will make you even more healthy and vibrant. There is a risk, they are reluctant to admit, that it might make you terribly sick. But we've no reason to assume that either. What would you do? It all turns on how well you currently feel. And if you look around and most other people are pretty unhealthy by comparison - perhaps appreciating your good fortune is enough and you should, perhaps, pursue greater wisdom, knowledge and satisfaction and progress elsewhere, rather than take the risky pill.
An elected president, even an appointed one (appointed by the Parliament or some committee, say) would shift some power away from the Parliament to another seat. We would actually not know what systems we are changing if we made this change. Perhaps those systems would not be too much affected. But perhaps it would be a tragic mistake. Shifting whole systems from one to another is no small thing.
And ultimately it does not matter “Who rules?” as Popper argues here in a paper that should be required reading for anyone interested in these issues. Because democracy simply isn't about electing and installing rulers - be they presidents or prime minsters. It's actually about ensuring rulers can do very little damage so that we can correct their errors if need be. The Monarch - or their representative - is simply prohibited from doing much damage and we have seen this (1973 notwithstanding).
The question before us when considering changes to our system of government is: how can we most easily undo mistakes that are made by rulers? Our system has already satisfied this criterion to a level that leads the world. Popper’s criterion of error correction is no better elsewhere and we might guess cannot be easily improved. Again: we should not fall back into the mistake of thinking democracy is about putting particular rulers into positions and therefore the question of whether the head of state is Australian, or not, is the wrong question for a democracy to consider. And it is true, a monarchist cannot properly articulate all the reasons that a monarchy is preferable because much of reason why is tied up in a type of inexplicit knowledge instantiated in the traditions of governing. But just because these cannot be explained in clear language does not make the knowledge more dubious. Remember: the knowledge of how to ride a bike is of a similar sort: real, yet not easily explained in words. But we know that the knowledge works because the bike stays balanced and you get to where you need to go. As systems of government and great democratic traditions are. Means of safely, and with stability changing our place to allow us to make progress together. The analogy is not, in this case: replacing a horse and buggy with a car. It's repairing the best bike we've ever had that has absolutely no sign of wear and tear. It's taking off the front wheel and replacing it with another: never tested, and for no reason other than it was, for example, made in Australia.
So, in summary: our Constitutional Monarchy maintains the constant stability that allows for the change that the Parliament brings. To remove that stability that is the very thing that has facilitated our dynamics society is dangerous. We’d then have two seats - the Parliament and the Presidency - both subject to change.
The Crown is the Dignified and the Parliament is the Efficient said Walter Bagehot in “The English Constitution” to separate out the symbolic versus the way things are actually acheived. In modern science-type language: The Crown is the Constant and the Parliament is the Variable.
We change this at our peril.