Servant and Master

It’s ever been fashionable for political candidates to refer to themselves as “public servants.” They do this so frequently that it tends to obscure the fact that, for once, they are absolutely, 100% right. They literally are our servants, just like the tuxedoed valets and uniformed maids on Downton Abbey—people we hire to do chores that we don’t have the time, inclination, or often capability to do. But instead of cleaning the fireplace, washing dishes and polishing the silver, public servants put out fires, clean toxic spills, and fix the roads. I grew up on my grandfather’s farm, and he spoke of how in the early 1900s, he and the other nearby farmers paved the dirt road leading to their farms with crushed stone, as they were tired of getting stuck in the mud. And when I say they paved, I mean they got their horses and wagons, loaded them with stone from the local quarry and laid and packed 2 miles of road—by hand. Other than Ron Paul, anybody else against hiring public servants to do this stuff? Didn’t think so.

 So where’s the source of tension between us and government? Particularly among the conservatives (and the 1% who draft their marching orders). After all, the 1% like having servants. Why should they mind a few more, especially ones who don’t live in the house, where they might filch the caviar while people are out? Well, the reason is that public servants are funny kinds of servants. They work for us, but we also grant them power over us. They can tell us what to do and not do. They can take our money, our possessions and sometimes even our lives. Funny kind of servants indeed. Sort of like if Downton Abbey’s butler, Mr. Carson, could decide to have the Earl beaten for taking an extra helping of beef Wellington (would make for effective dieting, though).

Republicans say the answer to the problem of servants-as-masters is smaller government. Now I’m as much in favor of value for money spent as anyone on the Right, but I don’t see how focus on quantity of government is terribly helpful. Complaining that government is “too big” is like rejecting one of Lady Gaga’s hits for having “too many notes.” Anyone think that a small government with a small budget—like, say, the Taliban—can’t be cruel and oppressive? Genghis Khan didn’t slaughter millions across 2 continents because his bureaucracy was out of control. A government could be quite evil with only 2 laws: “Everything belongs to the king,” and “Obey the king or die” (which probably was the sum total of government through much of human history). Quantity of government power is not the problem, it’s what it does with its power. Although the Constitution serves to check government power, its general and sometimes vague requirements must be applied and interpreted by the courts. And this means the only way to ensure quality government comes down to staffing it with quality people.

 That’s why our presidential candidates’ personal qualities need to be unashamedly brought to the fore. In one of the recent Republican “debates,” Newt called questions about his personal conduct “despicable,” and the debate moderator tripped over himself backing down. Why are we reluctant to consider the “character issue?” Perhaps because it’s so much easier for pols to justify, excuse and otherwise spin their character (and their opponents to twist and demonize) that we are wary of trying to judge candidates’ personal qualities. More likely we fear appearing subjective, rather than objectively focused on concrete policy statements like, say, plans to colonize the moon. But no matter how detailed the position papers, no one really knows what problems we’ll face in the future. We can, however, judge the qualities of the people we put in place to deal with them. And one of the key things we should know about someone given power over us is how they treat other people when they’re not constrained by law but only their character. Newt treated his ex-wives poorly—how will he treat strangers like you? How will other candidates for office treat you?

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