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Letter from Rome: The problem of personal ambition and the common good

Dear friends of Istituto Acton,

With the U.S. elections mercifully drawing to a close and the city of Rome mired in continual administrative turmoil, I’ve been thinking how we are simultaneously attracted and repelled by a certain thing known as political leadership.

The repellent aspects are evident: so many politicians fail to live up to their (often extravagant) campaign promises and potential and seem to be willing to say anything to get elected, only to do precisely the opposite once in office and enrich themselves handsomely once leaving it. Principles are something to be spoken about but rarely respected if they get in the way of electoral success or personal fortune. Anyone who pays any amount of attention at all to politics is likely to become either a hardened cynic or a masochist.

But many of us do pay attention because we still care about who wins elections, especially at the executive level. Some times for partisan reasons, other times for patriotic ones, we feel compelled to have an opinion and vote, to convince others of why one politician is better than another to represent us as a whole. Being the executive is different than being one of many legislators or judges because the executive office is unitary, held by one person who has the freedom to act on behalf of the entire community and whom all the citizens can identify, praise or blame.

Despite our post-modern cynicism, we still recognize old-fashioned notions such as the honor and responsibility that are attached to ruling. We know that not just anyone should rule, that ruling requires a certain character, temperament, indeed virtue, as if the ruler really should be better than the rest of us (but not too much), which makes our disappointment in our leaders that much the greater when they eventually fail.

Witnessing the mess of electoral campaigns and the difficulties of trying to please so many divergent interest groups, reasonable people ask “Who would want to put themselves through this?” It could be egomaniacs, policy experts, managers, even TV starts. Then there are those with an extraordinary ambition to rule who are, in Abraham Lincoln’s words, “of the family of the lion or the tribe of the eagle”; they do not want to be just any type of ruler, but “an Alexander, a Caesar, a Napoleon,” who refuse to follow the mediocre example of placeholders because “towering genius disdains a beaten path.”

Of course there are ambitious, highly competitive people in other professions: business, sports, the arts and sciences, even religion; virtually every human field has those with a thirst for distinction, who want to excel at what they do. Don’t entrepreneurs also “disdain a beaten path”? Yet only politics offers the kind of comprehensiveness that is “fit for a king.” Poets immortalize certain types of rulers, and the ruler knows it. “For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground/And tell sad stories of the death of kings,” Shakespeare’s Richard II. As the late Walter Berns remarked, no one cares about the “death of a salesman.”

Presidents are the closest thing republican government has to kings. Unlike kings, presidents are elected from among us and have to earn our votes. They serve for a limited time, are constrained by constitutions and other laws, and are supposed to return to living as an ordinary citizen after ceding power to another. Republican leaders, even more than monarchs, are supposed to be public servants, custodians rather than definers of the common good.

How likely is this to happen? What tempers the pride of the politically ambitious? The United States has been remarkably fortunate avoiding difficulties in transferring power from one president to another. Perhaps because of improvements in the “science of politics,” perhaps because Americans “are born equal instead of becoming so,” perhaps because the particular type of Christianity found in the US is less hierarchical and more focused on “servant leadership.” Maybe the most driven have simply preferred the immediate, transitory gains of business to the more demanding but eternal glories of politics. Something has prevented ambitious Americans from making the entire country the plaything of their desires.

At least so far, as I have the nagging suspicion that the US is losing its exceptional political character. Our government is becoming more “European” in controlling ever-increasing aspects of social life; our leaders less willing to leave the nation’s capital and return to a citizen’s life; our citizens less vigilant in protecting their liberty. Some have observed parallels between today’s America and a decadent ancient Rome.

The one institution that survived the fall of Rome is the Catholic Church, which has had its own fair share of ambitious rulers. Following the example of Christ himself, popes are absolute rulers who are not supposed to rule absolutely, and the vast majority has respected this precept. Maybe because its otherworldly mission does not explicitly concern itself with politics, even as the Church’s social doctrine continues to encourage us to improve our life on earth. At any rate, the Psalmist warns us, “Put not your faith in princes”; the New York Times was ready to canonize “Saint Hillary” back in 1993. Naturally speaking, it may be impossible to balance pride and humility in the human soul; supernaturally, there is hope.

Kishore Jayabalan

Kishore Jayabalan is director of Istituto Acton, the Acton Institute's Rome office. Formerly, he worked for the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace as an analyst for environmental and disarmament issues and desk officer for English-speaking countries. Kishore Jayabalan earned a B.A. in political science and economics from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. In college, he was executive editor of The Michigan Review and an economic policy intern for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He worked as an international economist for the Bureau of Labor Statistics in Washington, D.C.