Ruling to Serve

First Things, April 2013.

Those of us who are citizens of liberal democratic regimes do not refer to those who govern as “rulers.” It is our boast that we rule ourselves. We prefer to speak of those who govern as public servants, but the extraordinary prestige and trappings attached to public office, in just about all times, and in just about all places, signal an underlying fact that discomfits our democratic and egalitarian sensibilities: Even in liberal democratic regimes, high-level public officials are rulers. They make rules, enforce them, and resolve disputes about their meaning and applicability. To a very large extent, at the end of the day, what they say goes.

Of course, our rulers rule not by dint of sheer power, the way the Mafia might do in a territory it controls. They are rulers who are subject to constitutional rules”rules they do not themselves make and cannot easily or purely on their own initiative revise or repeal. They rule in limited ways, and ordinarily for limited terms. They rule by virtue of democratic processes by which they came to hold office. They can be removed or significantly disempowered at the next election if the people are not happy with them. Still, they rule.

My point is not to hoot at the idea that those holding governmental offices and controlling the levers of governmental power are servants. I want to defend the idea that rulers truly can be servants, but they are servants in a special sense. They are people who serve us by ruling well. If they rule badly, through incompetence, corruption, or tyranny, they serve us poorly”indeed, they disserve us….

First Things