Two of the last three columns have been about debunking dumb sayings people use to describe governing and recognizing that decisions government has to make aren’t always about you.
Let’s combine the two. Rarely do I cringe harder than when I hear a voter argue that an elected official should act a certain way because, “you work for us.” This is almost always followed by an emphatic WE THE PEOPLE.
Take a moment to pause to really analyze what I’m saying here because this might create a strong negative intuitive reaction in some who have used this line in the past.
I am not arguing that elected officials work for the public.
I am arguing that using that fact as a primary basis for convincing a public official to do something is at best ineffective and at worst plainly ignorant.
The reason why becomes easy to see when put to the test in a couple of analogies. While I don’t think anyone expects to be able to fly to Cupertino, Calf. and meet with Steve Jobs’ successor Tim Cook just in the way no one expects to fly to D.C. to have a sit down with the president, the example does hold for if you were to walk into a middle manager’s office at Apple and tell them what to do because you own one share of stock.
It’s true that Apple is a publicly held company so the constituents are the shareholders just as a nation’s are its citizens, but the manager would forcibly remove you from his office and have every right to do so.
“But Bobby!” you might be saying. “You can opt into buying Apple stock and have a choice to sell it. I didn’t have a choice to be a naturally born citizen so our American public officials are held to a higher standard to their constituents.”
Okay. So next time you get pulled over, try telling the Citrus County Sheriff’s deputy in his sporty white stetson that you refuse to take the ticket because he works for you.
This part of the analogy is where social contract theory steps in; a topic that coincidentally I spent the last week on with my ethics students. SCT is the abstract idea that we trade individual rights in exchange for societal order. It was developed in the mid-1600s by Thomas Hobbes who was heavily influenced by Machiavelli about 100 years earlier.
Both Hobbes and Machiavelli thought that most rights should be infringed upon by a strong central state, one that became known by the title of Hobbes’ seminal work on the theory: the Leviathan.
If this sounds like a democrat, socialist dystopian, you’re not entirely wrong. About a quarter-century after the ideas of the Leviathan started to take hold, a competing ideology was born.
John Locke in England, an ironic place given the philosophy it would inspire in the next century, turned social contract theory around to place the emphasis on the individual rather than the central state leviathan saying the people are endowed with natural rights that should never be infringed upon.
His approach named these rights as life, liberty and the pursuit of property, referring to one’s ownership over themselves rather than to land or buildings. A 32-year-old Thomas Jefferson writing the Declaration of Independence would of course borrow the line changing the last word to that of happiness which we know it today.
This crossover is important because it shows just how foundational Lockean philosophy was to the Founding Fathers. Yet even John Locke’s own philosophy was a form of social contract theory, not some radical reversal of power from authority to the people. At its core, Locke still thought individuals need to sacrifice some part of their autonomy for a greater society and that the representatives of this societal order should have authority - not as one person oppressing another, but rather as a symbol of shared sacrifice that we all pay.
There is one more thing even more ironic than John Locke publishing the philosophy in England that would eventually lead to the battle cry of the American Revolution. It is that the political ideology most concerned with a reversal of power to the people, the one throughout history that has been most closely aligned with anyone making the WE THE PEOPLE argument, is Marxism - the very philosophy those same people would claim to hate.
Public officials are servants of the whole society. They do work for all of us. Individually, though, we can treat them with a little more respect, especially when asking for their help.