Last night I watched Charles III, a PBS drama about the future reign of the present rather weary and gray Prince of Wales. The story posits that in his very first week of rule, months before his official coronation, he precipitates a constitutional crisis that throws not only the UK, but the very future of the monarchy, into turmoil.
What does poor old fictional Charles do to throw the realm into such chaos? He refuses on principle to sign a bill curbing freedom of the press.
The bill can’t become law unless he signs it. But that’s not the issue. The issue is that, even though he has a legal right to withhold his assent, under the modern, de-fanged royal system, monarchs never do refuse to sign bills. Conscience or belief has no place in it.
It’s simply a monarch’s duty to sign bills whether he approves or not. A king or queen is a fancy – and very expensive! – rubber stamp. And when the rubber stamp malfunctions, parliament can’t just go out and buy a new one.
(The new King Charles rightly asks, “What am I if I can’t act from my own conscience?” but neither parliament nor the tradition-worshipping public has any tolerance for a monarch who doesn’t keep to his ceremonial function.)
The tale goes on from there, well-acted and dramatic – and all the more dramatic for being in blank verse ala William Shakespeare. But it’s a Shakespearian tragedy that’s much ado about nothing.
Just toss out that exceedingly expensive rubber stamp! End of crisis.
But don’t say that to a traditionalist Brit! Sure, the show is fiction; but the policies it portrays aren’t, nor are the attitudes. Millions of people apparently take this stuff seriously in real life and find it gripping in drama.
The U.S. federal government has been looking remarkably silly lately, but I wonder, do its basic procedures and premises look as pointless as that to outsiders’ eyes?
One thing for sure: The excrescences and encrustations of history and custom never improve on the original, already flawed, government product.
Add a tradition here, grow a new custom there, create a cosmetic reform, then another and another, to a system that really ought to be burned to the ground. Pretty soon you have something that looks like one of those ocean creatures that lurches along the sea-bottom hauling an absurd load of barnacles on its back.
But oh my heavens, you can’t change it! Because “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” Or because change might cause chaos.
This is why the federal Board of Tea Experts survived 29 years after Richard Nixon publicized it as the silliest waste in a wasteful government.
This is why the EPA still gets away with ruining the physics of gas cans even as millions of hapless users cuss and wonder why something so simple doesn’t work any more. This is why institutional systems always get worse, never better.
This morning I finished reading a recent-ish book called Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire, covering the now-forgotten history of the founding of the first American settlement in western North America.
Astoria – the humble Oregon city at the mouth of the Columbia – still clings to life today. Moviegoers know it as the location of The Goonies (real movie buffs also know that Kindergarten Cop and quite a few other mostly forgettable films were at least partially shot there). After darned near dying of regulation in the 1970s and 1980s, when it lost most of its fishing and logging trade, it’s come back to life as a market town with a nice arts scene.
Some people still even remember that it began life as a fur-trading outpost of John Jacob Astor’s. Monuments and parks all around it remind tourists that points nearby were the terminus of the Lewis & Clark expedition
But even among Pacific Northwet locals, the harrowing history of Astoria’s founding and failure have been mostly forgotten.
Because Astoria was never supposed to be just a berg clinging to life at the dreary edge of a continent; it was meant to be both the center of a global commercial empire (in Astor’s eyes) and a sister country to the U.S. (in Thomas Jefferson’s vision). This little city of (now) about 10,000 mostly working-class people was supposed to spread an entire civilization, a new republic, down the coast to Mexico, up the coast to Alaska, and inland to the Rockies. It was supposed to be the founding colony, like a Jamestown or a Plymouth, from which much more would grow.
A lot of things got in the way of Astor’s and Jefferson’s hopes. The War of 1812 was the big one. So were shipwrecks, starvation, violence, misbehaving rivers, incomprehensibly big trees, rain, mud, thirst, accidents, fatal misunderstanding of other cultures, and alll the usual things that plague wilderness pioneers.
But one of those usual things was bad leadership. Astor was a true visionary and a commercial genius, but of the three leaders he chose to establish Astoria, two were egotistical idiots who sabotaged the venture (one via blind, murderous arrogance, the other by misrule followed ultimately by a traitorous sellout). The third was by all accounts a very good man and a respected consensus leader – whose inexperience, indecisiveness, lack of urgency, and derelictions of duty played a huge role in the eventual destruction of Astor’s venture.
So today instead of the center of a Pacific empire we have a small town, barely hanging on (though reports filtering back east from Astoria’s explorers did inspire settlers to begin trekking to Oregon’s lush Willamette Valley and the paths the Astorians forged through the wilds with their suffering created the famous Oregon Trail). And of course the Pacific region did, 200 years later, become the major trade empire Astor envisioned.
Funny how history is so full of might-have-beens.
Many factors contributed. But the fate of Astoria hinged above all on a distant man in even-then comfortable urban Manhattan making short-sighted decisions about how people would behave in conditions and environments he could not imagine.
But you can’t blame Astor. Well, you can blame him for a lot of things including ultimately the fact that 40% of his Astorians died. But he did his best, and he continued to fight (and fight hard and cannily) for his venture even after his onsite representatives had effectively abandoned it. You can’t blame him for his failure to foresee the future and predict how his chosen agents would behave in unpredictable circumstances.
This is simply what happens when distant “experts” imagine they can control far-off populations whose real world is very different than their own.
Of course, Astor was hampered by having no communication and no ability either to direct or rescue his venture from afar.
Things are different now. Technically.
But human beings aren’t.
The next time east coast masterminds make foolish decisions about people they don’t know and can never effectively control, we can hope that starvation and violence won’t be the result – though as we can see looking around the world, it often still is.