It's official. Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, gave birth to the "royal baby" on July 22nd, a bouncing baby boy who will one day be the King of the United Kingdom.

Although many Americans are thrilled to partake in the Royal Baby fanfare, I've also seen a lot of discussions revolving around the questionable morality of celebrating an institution that openly reveres inherited privilege and power. It’s a very good point, and not one that I want to dismiss lightly. Sure, I enjoyed watching the Royal Wedding and shamelessly pored through pictures of Kate to keep tabs on her pregnancy style, but I really don't like to think that I was celebrating institutionalized classism.

So with that criticism in mind, I'd like to revisit the idea of "inherited power." What is it that Will and Kate are actually passing along to their newborn son? Can we really call it power?

Do British Monarchs Hold Any Power?

Before we examine whether or not Will and Kate have any real power, we first have to understand what exactly power is.

The general consensus in psychological research is that there are five types of power - legitimate, expert, coercive, reward, and referent. What these words mean will become more clear as I explain them, but what's important to realize right now is that power does not look the same on every person who has it. The type of power that Barack Obama has is vastly different than the type of power that Angelina Jolie has, though anyone could argue that they are both powerful people.

First and foremost, legitimate power arises from filling a role that gives you socially sanctioned power over other people. Barack Obama has legitimate power because he is the leader of the United States. Your boss has legitimate power over you at work. The catch, however, is that this type of power generally goes away when the role isn't applicable anymore. If your boss is fired, you no longer have to do what s/he says. Once Obama is no longer the president, he won't be the one who decides whether or not we go to war.

Back when the UK had an absolute monarchy and the sovereign reigned supreme (say, when Queen Mary I issued the Heresy Acts and executed Protestants all over England), the British monarchs had legitimate power. However, if Queen Elizabeth II woke up tomorrow and wanted to declare Philip Treacy hats illegal, she'd be out of luck. The monarchs no longer hold legitimate power in the United Kingdom.


Next, we have expert power. The best way to understand expert power is that you get it by convincing others that you know your stuff. When you are a doctor, lawyer, or general know-it-all, you have power over others because they trust and respect your opinions on certain matters. If a random passerby on the street tried to tell me I had some random disease, I'd laugh and walk away. If the famous (though fictional) diagnostician House, M.D. diagnosed me, I would believe him and feel concerned.

Do the monarchs have expert power? What would they be experts on? When people respect and pay attention to the British monarchy in general, is it because the monarchs are perceived to be 'experts' on leadership and government? Not really. So no, they do not have expert power.

Now here's where things get tricky.

Coercive power is what someone has when they rely on threats and punishments to get others to do things they don't really want to do. Tyrants have coercive power. Angry mothers threatening their kids with no dessert have coercive power.

Historically, the British monarchy has had this in spades; after all, just a few paragraphs ago I wrote about Queen Mary I threatening Protestants with execution. The British monarchy has even had a good deal of coercive power in more recent history, threatening Edward VIII that he had to abdicate the throne if he wanted to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson in 1936, and (many would argue) coercing Prince Charles into marrying the late Princess Diana rather than allowing him to marry the divorcee Camilla Parker-Bowles in 1981.

But if anything, the coercive power in those more recent situations involved power that the monarchy had over...its own members. Not British citizens. And in any case, it seems the monarchy has figured out that coercive power does not typically bode well for its wielders. Prince Charles was permitted to marry Camilla Parker-Bowles (now the Duchess of Cornwall) in 2005, and Prince William was gleefully allowed to wed Kate Middleton in 2011 with no serious opposition from the monarchy regarding her 'common' genealogy or the fact that she'd had other boyfriends. Especially since the tragic death of Princess Diana in 1997, the monarchy has generally let go of the "threats, punishment, and coercion" tactic.

So even though this appears to be one of the last strongholds to go, the monarchy definitely does not rely on coercive power anymore. In fact, Will and Kate's own wedding seems to prove that when it comes to threats and punishment, the monarchy's moved on to greener pastures.


On the other side of the coin, we have reward power. Reward power also depends on what the powerful person can bestow upon the powerless - but this time, those things are more like raises, promotions, or compliments. Your boss has reward power if he can get you to do things with the promise of a future reward (like the title of 'Assistant [to the] Regional Manager.')

Does the modern British monarchy have reward power? Not quite. Unless the 'reward' is an opulent wedding every 30 years and a royal baby every so often, there isn't much that modern UK monarchs can 'promise' Brits that would compellingly persuade them to do their bidding.

And finally, we come to referent power. People with referent power don't necessarily have any concrete, institutional power over others at all. Rather, referent power is what we might also call 'celebrity.' People with referent power are revered and mimicked because they're in the public eye and other people admire them. Angelina Jolie has referent power because when she writes about undergoing a preventive double mastectomy, other people suddenly start talking about preventive double mastectomies. Jennifer Aniston has referent power because when she cut her hair for a TV show, thousands of women went to their salons and asked for the exact same style.

Based on how so many people have been following the #GreatKateWait and obsessing about All Things Baby, the modern-day British monarchy does seem to have power: Referent power. Essentially, the power that the new royal parents have over British citizens is more similar to celebrities than political leaders like David Cameron.

But Their Power Is 'Inherited' - Isn't This Against Everything We Should Value?

Yes, members of the royal family only have referent power because they are born (or marry) into it. But it's hard to argue that having parents with referent power wouldn't give anyone their own leg up on the referent power scale. After all, I don't know many 7-year olds without famous parents who are regarded as fashion icons like Tom-Cruise-and-Katie-Holmes offspring Suri Cruise, or many babies born to non-famous parents whose gestation periods were thoroughly well-documented on a TV show dedicated to Keeping Up with their families.

In fact, there's always been quite a lot about power that's inherited, even outside of the United Kingdom. Despite the allure of 'upward mobility' and the idea that anyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps, the amount of money that you can expect to make as an adult is most strongly predicted by...the amount of money that your parents earned themselves. Besides, it's hard to deny that certain families are given a 'leg up' when it comes to societal & political influence, even without an official monarchy.


Whether you're a Democrat or a Republican, the last name that you inherit matters - being a "Bush" or a "Kennedy" will take you far in politics.

Finally, referent power is very similar to another concept - social status. Although power and status are technically different things, people with high levels of status became that way (by definition) because they were respected, admired, and well-liked by others - much like people with referent power. Typically, people achieve high levels of status by being extroverted and emotionally stable, as well as knowing how to monitor and adjust their social behavior. Achieving social status by having the right combination of personality traits doesn't seem like nepotism or inherited privilege - but isn't it? After all, all three of these traits are substantially heritable, meaning people inherit genes that play a role in how extroverted, emotionally stable, or good at self-monitoring they are from their biological parents. Some studies even show that as much as 50% of a population's variance in extroversion or emotional stability can be attributed to genetic factors. Even when power isn't inherited through official titles, we're far from being born on a completely equal playing field.

Colin Firth said it best as King Charles VI in The King's Speech: "If I'm a king, where's my power? Can I form a government, can I levy a tax, declare a war? No, and yet I'm the seat of all authority, why? Because the nation believes that when I speak, I speak for them." The modern-day British royalty certainly has power, but it can't really be called 'legitimate' anymore. Their power revolves around status, respect, and fame. When it comes to wielding power, Will and Kate are more akin to David Beckham than David Cameron. Furthermore, if we're going to criticize the Royal Family for nepotism, we might benefit from turning the lens back around on ourselves and re-examining the ways in which we all inherit things that make us more (or less) likely to wield power in society.

So, let's raise a glass to the newborn heir. After all, it's just a little harmless celebrity.


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Image Credits

Image of Will & Kate kissing from Beacon Radio at Flickr.

Image of Barack Obama is the official White House photo by Pete Souza via Wikipedia.

Image of Queen Mary I is in the public domain via Wikipedia.

Image of Michael Scott is available under fair use via Wikipedia.

Image of Angelina Jolie by Gage Skidmore via Wikipedia.

Image of the Kennedys by Richard Sears via Wikipedia.

Image of the Bushes by Eric Draper via Wikipedia.

Most of this post was originally published at IonPsych in May 2011, referring to the Royal Wedding. You can see the original post by clicking the From The Archives icon on the left.