The Economics of Royalty
Karl Williams, Editor of Progress Magazine
What I’m about to write here would almost certainly land me in jail if it were written in Thailand. I’m about to criticize its monarch, King Bhumibol.
Yes, dear reader, it may be hard to believe that, in the 21st century in a modern and supposedly democratic nation, such a draconian punishment can still be meted out, but Thailand is the Land of Surprises in more ways than one. But, stranger still, this “respect” accorded to the king is not enforced by the police or secret service, but by the overwhelming majority of ordinary citizens. You see, so all-pervasive is the massive royal propaganda machine that the Thai citizenry themselves so wholly believe in the goodness and greatness of their monarch that they not only enthusiastically obey and serve their king, but vigilantly enforce obedience from any who might dissent.
I vividly recall my first exposure to this bizarre cultural phenomenon – indeed, having come too close to being beaten to a pulp, I can scarcely forget. It was 1979 and I was at the Bangkok horse racing track when the national anthem (more or less a eulogy to the king) was played. Everyone rose to their feet in silence but I, having had too many beers, raised my glass and yelled “King Rama – you bewdy!” My Thai girlfriend at the time had to desperately sweet talk the guys who – with faces contorted with such anger that they still haunt me – came charging over to me at the end of the anthem to give me a pugilistic lesson in showing the king his due respect.
It’s impossible to overstate the all-pervading extent and depth of propaganda that extols the king and his family. He’s on most shop walls, on billboards, in statue form on major intersections, shown on practically every TV news program performing wise and compassionate deeds, in every version of history as (with his dynasty) the savior of the nation and – in the end – inside your head (which is messed with something shockin’). This is a public relations campaign from which North Korea’s Kim Jong Il could well take a few handy pointers.
What’s my beef with monarchism? Admittedly, the king may even be a good guy (though I am pretty well convinced he’s much to the contrary), but – just like in the United Kingdom – it’s not the king or queen who’s the problem. The trouble is with the whole retinue of princes, lords, earls, barons, viscounts, counts, marquises and dukes, who together claim all sorts of privileges – specifically, unequal rights to land and natural resources. Hey, in one form or another, most kings claim that the entire lands of “his” kingdom belong to him – try getting a geoist to swallow that!
As I said, to openly discuss these matters in Thailand is dangerous indeed. Andrea and I arranged to meet up with an Aussie girl whose mother was a friend of my mother, and who had married a Thai guy and settled there about 4 years before. When I started to talk about the king in this way, she totally freaked even though no-one could have overheard us at our restaurant table. I assumed that she was afraid of being charged with disloyalty to the king, but actually it was worse than that. What upset her – brought up in Oz in a fairly typical egalitarian family – is that I should cast doubt on the glory of the king – in just four years, she too had succumbed to the propaganda machine!
I should spell out my reasons for attacking this sweet-looking 80-year-old, the ninth in line in the Rama dynasty. Firstly, I should accuse most Westerners of being themselves taken in by royalist propaganda inasmuch as they accord special status – undoubtedly fuelled by women’s gossip magazines – to so-called royalty. It’s fed to most of us with our mothers’ milk, as our mums bring us up on fairy tales of kings and princesses and wonderful palaces. Thank goodness that Princess Diana slammed into that concrete pillar, as I’d just about overdosed on all the absurd publicity about our “Princess of Hearts”.
The reality is that the special caste of humans whom we revere as royalty are basically just the descendents of robber-barons who conquered the land, claimed it for themselves and executed or imprisoned anyone who challenged – even verbally challenged – their right to claim ownership of “their” kingdom. As history is indeed rewritten by the winners, after a few generations the truth of the brutal conquest is lost in the mists of time (and the ruthless royal censorship). From what I’ve garnered myself, King Rama (a name which itself connotes godlike qualities) himself is just the descendant of a thug, plain and simple. Except that this thug happened to be a successful thug, who conquered and claimed dominion over Thailand.
Today the colossal wealth and privilege of the king of Thailand is part of the whole cult of his magnificence. The vast palace complex in Bangkok – some of which is open to tourists – is immaculately maintained and is designed to impress, if not overawe. Beautiful murals decorate the walls, retelling the national myth of how the Rama dynasty beat back those demonic Burmese invaders, making Thailand a peaceful and happy nation under wise rule.
The royal propaganda machine was in full media saturation mode during our travels, with the death of the king’s sister, Princess Galyani Vadhana. Do you remember those film clips showing how Stalin had intimidated the party faithful so much that no-one dared to be the first to stop clapping after Stalin’s speech? There were echoes of this in Thailand, as people – or is that sheeple? – competed to dress up in the blackest and most mournful outfits to loyally display the depth of their grief for the princess. But rather than being motivated by fear, they seemed to be genuinely prompted by devotion as the media pumped out endless eulogies of the saintly deeds of the late princess.
And the taxpayer, of course, paid for the lavish funeral – the equivalent of about A$11 million just for the cremation platform in the shape of a traditional Thai pavilion with 4 porticos and 7 tiers. Add to that the cost of restoring the royal funeral chariots, the cost of employing consultants to handle public relations (directing the media as to the appropriate eulogies to give), the production of commemorative books, and for the archives documenting the royal funeral.
The images of Big Brother King are so widespread in Bangkok that we’ll have to escape by jumping on a bus and leave “Bangers” to head north through the cultural heart of Thailand. We stopped 4 days at a little town that’s way off the tourist trail, called Phrae where the old fortified part of town was great for street walking, with lots of old traditional teak houses.
But then we came across a bizarre sight – an over-the-top pink mini-palace with a degree of ornamentation so over-the-top that we had to investigate. Surprise, surprise! The wealth underlying the pink palace came from “teak concessions” – that is, the king giving away Thailand’s forests to his allies. This local “prince” claimed ownership of all land and natural resources and sold off the ancient stands of teak to the British in adjoining Burma. We were later to visit another museum where I scribbled down this little pearl: “Traditionally all forests in northern Siam were treated as properties of the ruling prince and his relatives. The logging companies that wanted to conduct business in Lan Na [northern Thailand] had to obtain permits from the owners and pay fees for each tree cut.”
Meandering on, we came to the capital of the north, the charming city of Chiang Mai, dotted with exquisite Buddhist images and ancient temples. The royal propaganda machine would have you believe that this region is an integral part of Thailand, “unified” and protected by the Rama dynasty. The reality is that it is so distinctly culturally different that – rather like how Melanesian West Papua should be independent of Java-dominated Indonesia – it should really be an independent nation. Indeed, over the centuries northern Thailand has had long periods of independence, and could even claim to be as much a part of Burma as Thailand.
But the Rama dynasty had different ideas, eyeing the abundant natural resources, and conquered …..er, unified …. the region in the early 20th century. Opponents were dispensed with, allies were installed, and bureaucrats posing as historians respun the party line and, before you could say “next generation”, everybody was reverently bowing to the king.
But the incorporation of northern Thailand had to take place with all the requisite pomp and grandeur befitting a demigod. To give you an idea of what happened, here’s a passage from the Lonely Planet guidebook to Thailand: “The completion of the northern railway to Chiang Mai in 1921 finally linked the north with central Thailand. In 1927 King Rama VII and Queen Rambaibani rode into the city at the head of an 84-elephant caravan, becoming the first central Thai monarchs to visit the north, and in 1933 Chiang Mai officially became a province of Siam.”
And who became the “princes” of the north? From the Chiang Mai museum, I learnt that a mere tax farmer, Kim Seng Lee (1862-1919), with his loyalty in the right place, was awarded important titles and positions. Many other such “commoners” became royalty in this way. And over time, as their wealth and power gave them access to the most gorgeous women, their descendants gradually moved up in the gene pool stakes.
But the Bangkok-based king wasn’t going to take any chances – the northern rulers had to very publicly swear allegiance to the king twice a year. And, as a visible sign of the king’s presence, he built an impressive palace, Phuping, on the mountain overlooking Chiang Mai. It’s open to the public on certain days, so we jumped on a bus to look at its famous gardens. The king wasn’t in residence, but I still had to hire long pants as a sign of my respect to the king – now you know the source of the venom I’m pouring on him! The extensive gardens are impressive in terms of design and maintenance, but obscene when you think that they are all constructed and kept for the occasional glance of one man.
This hasn’t been a rant based on wealth envy. As a geoist, if someone has accumulated vast wealth, in a free and fair market (i.e. without privilege) and paid the True Cost of all natural resources used along the way, I’ll be the first to proclaim “Good onya!” This has been an exposure of a greedy and ruthless (don’t be fooled by their finery) family, and their hangers-on. They’ve plundered and wasted the natural resources of Thailand and, for every prince thus living high on the hog, there are ten thousand “commoners” living in desperate poverty.
The really frustrating thing is that, as we geoists know, it’s all so unnecessary. If the wealth of the nation was shared in the geoist fashion so that natural resources would be used sparingly yet put to their highest and best use, the key to unlocking latent human potential would be turned. Perhaps Thailand could still retain a monarch as a head of state to safeguard a proper constitution, letting him/her live in dignified surroundings but with nothing like the obscene overconsumption of today. There’s something about the feelgood factor of having simple faith in a king or a guru that does, I grudgingly admit, have advantages. But give me a democracy with a strong local government and the Hare-Clark system of proportional representation.
Thailand’s economic woes are by no means solely due to its royal family and appointed princes, but they do most visibly – despite the propaganda – symbolize the misappropriation of natural resources by the few. In forthcoming issues we shall indeed pick over the wreckage caused directly by neoclassical economic policies. Whether in Western or Asian cultures, under a democracy or a monarchy, on Earth or some trippy distant galaxy, the Law of the Land determines that the only way to share natural wealth is through properly assessed natural resource charges. To tax production or employment is to effectively impose a fine on it and stifle it.
Next issue: Thanks to the assistance of the only geoist in Thailand, a retired navy admiral, we look at Thai economic policies.