So Prof. Tim Besley of the London School of Economics, former All Souls Prize Fellow, ex-member of the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee, the UK's third most respected economist, and all-round impressive smart guy, has a new paper with Marta Reynal-Querol at the Universtat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona. I mention these credentials to emphasise how respected and mainstream these guys are before I mention the finding of their paper, entitled "The Logic of Hereditary Rule: Theory and Evidence" (pdf, seems to be quite an early working paper), which is that hereditary rule/monarchy outperforms democracy but only when the hereditary ruler is subject to few constraints on their power.
Hereditary leadership has been an important feature of the political landscape throughout history. This paper argues that it can play a role in improving economic performance when it improves intertemporal incentives. We use a sample of leaders between 1848 and 2004 to show that economic growth is higher in polities with hereditary leaders but only when executive constraints are weak.
This finding is mirrored in policy outcomes which affect growth. There is also evidence that dynasties end when the economic performance of leaders is poor suggesting that hereditary rule is tolerated only where there are policy benefits. Finally, we focus on the case of monarchy where we find, using the gender of first-born children as instrument for monarchic succession, that monarchs increase growth.
That is: hereditary monarchs with lots of legal power choose better policy than other systems do, including democracies, non-hereditary dictators, and weak hereditary monarchs, and this is reflected in higher growth.
The size of the coefficient suggests that, in a country with weak executive constraints, going from a non-hereditary leader to an hereditary leader, increases the annual average economic growth of the country by 1.03 percentage points per year.
That's a really really big difference.
Of course, they're not saying they actually favour hereditary monarchy!
Although we have tried to understand the logic of hereditary rule, we do not regard the findings of the paper as supporting the institutions of hereditary rule. There are many arguments against, going back at least to Paine (1776), about the inherent injustice in such systems. Moreover, the fact that many polities around the world have put an end to hereditary rule and establish strong executive constraints is no accident since this is arguably a much more robust way to control leaders than relying on the chance that succession incentives will safe-guard the public interest.
It depends what you want government to do. If it's just there to guarantee a basic framework for society then as long as it worked, some sort of non-democratic system might be OK. Our having a stake in the electoral process hardly guarantees good governance (perhaps the opposite).
But lots of people value democracy not just because they think it gives us good policy: being part of a community; as an expression of human equality; an important type of positive freedom. These pragmatic arguments for and against different governance systems are not going to fully convince those types (and that's fair enough).
Of course the bigger issue is that the paper could easily be proved wrong in the review process, that's the point of interesting conjectures in working papers. And there's a whole lot of other literature out there, some of which goes against Besley and Reyna-Querol's work. But I tend to think that monarchy vs democracy is an empirical question. Whatever makes us freer, happier, richer is best.