Government as servant of the people
There are many reasons for a government to say they serve the people, or even to do so out of self interest, but an altruistic motive is harder to find.
Trying to convince people you are serving their best interests is part of the political game book. Think of the election pledges of South American semi-democracies. Each new president pledges to rid the country of corruption, better the situation of the working poor and so forth. Once in power they often become even more corrupt, rapacious and indifferent to the needs of the populace than their predecessor. Even dictators try it. Think of North Korea. With all the brutality of a police state at his disposal Kim supplements this by relentless propaganda brainwashing the population into thinking that he is looking after them and their poverty is all the fault of their arch enemy the USA.
But there are also reasons rulers to some extent may actually serve, to some extent, interests of their people. 19th century sociologist Max Weber examined styles of rule. One, which he called “charismatic” was typified by the pirate king: he held great power - but only so long as he kept delivering the goods – if he failed then he was supplanted. Obviously it was in the interests of a charismatic leader, even one who was otherwise not inclined to do so, to keep supplying his or her followers with sufficient of what they wanted.
Another type of rule Weber identified was typified by fealty between the ruler and the ruled. Here too, the close human relationship – whether by kinship or devoted service – had a two way effect. The ruler had incentive to look after his or her people.
However historically rulers of large or small domains have been a varied lot. Some benevolent towards their subjects. Some ruthless tyrants. One of the forces which drove the development of our modern constitutional democracy – from the nobles forcing Prince John in England to sign the Magna Carta to the Pilgrims fleeing to the Americas – was to reign in bad rulers. Hence Lincoln's government “for the people” is an important statement. It is also an objective that has been seriously undermined in recent times in most Western countries. The cynical joke “whoever you vote for a politician always gets elected” is not without foundation.
In Germany, Chancellor Merkel has swamped the country with immigrants for ideological motives, to the detriment of the nation. In Australia we have recently had a scandal involving a few politicians pushing a pro China line after receiving pay-offs that were traced through local businessmen back to Chinese government entities. I expect that in every country there are problems with corruption on large or small scales.
All of these – ideology, self interest, pay-backs for political support, influence of powerful lobby groups and bribery – mean that governments are not putting the welfare of their people first.
However I was surprised when I tried to find Biblical reaching promoting “government as servant of the people”. It was not there as an end in itself. Make no mistake, the Bible had many damning things to say about rulers who looked after themselves not the people! It was just that it was the end result of other things. God-fearing rulers loved justice because God loves justice – so they made sure the law-courts ran properly and treated everyone impartially. God-fearing rulers saw that God had put them in charge of his people, so they owed it to God to govern for the people not themselves. And so the list goes on.
A minister once quoted to me “I am every man's servant: yet I have but one Master”. I think this will turn out to be the case with truly good government as well. It is the result of duty to God.
So I want to pause the examination of “servant of the people” in order to deal with the Biblical view of who governments are ultimately responsible to, what their responsibilities are and the precepts which, if followed by rulers – be they kings or elected bodies – inevitably produce a government which truly serves the people.