Princeton University professor delivers second annual Tocqueville Lecture
Nicole Simon | Friday, September 14, 2018
Many in a democratic society shy away from the world “ruler” when describing their political leaders. Yet this term is not completely incompatible with liberal, democratic ideals, Princeton professor Robert P. George argued in the second Tocqueville Lecture on Thursday.
“Now, my point is not to hoot at the idea of government, and those holding governmental offices and controlling the levers of governmental power, as ‘servants.’ On the contrary, I want, in the end, to defend the idea that rulers truly can be servants,” he said. “They are people who serve us by ruling. They serve us well by ruling well.”
George argued for servant leadership and limited government as a means to preventing corruption, in the lecture hosted by the Tocqueville Program for Inquiry into Religion and Public Life at Notre Dame. At Princeton University, George also serves as director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions.
The Tocqueville Program, along with its sister program, the undergraduate minor in constitutional studies, “seeks to nurture informed conversation, learning and scholarship about the fundamental principles of a decent and just political regime with a particular focus on religious liberty,” according to its website.
George began by acknowledging a liberal and democratic society’s aversion to the word “ruler” when thinking about their political leaders.
“It is our boast that we rule ourselves,” he said. “So, we prefer to speak of them not as our rulers, but as servants — public servants, or at least as people being in ‘public service.’”
To understand what exactly it means to ‘rule well,’ George focused a large part of his lecture on the idea of the common good.
“The moral justification for the rulers’ ruling is service to the good of all, the common good,” he said. “And the common good is not an abstraction or Platonic form hovering somewhere beyond the concrete well-being — the flourishing — of the flesh-and-blood persons constituting the community. It just is the well-being of those persons and of the families and other associations of persons … of which they are members. The right of legitimate rulers to rule — and they do have a right to rule — is rooted in the duty of rulers to rule in the interest of all. In other words, the basis of the right to rule is the duty to serve the common good.”
George said an important, pragmatic component of service to the common good is the use of limited government.
“There is a profound lesson in this for those of us who are interested in ensuring that rulers remain servants, ruling in the interest of citizens and do not reduce citizens to a condition of dependency or servitude,” he said. “For it is critical to the effective limitation of governmental power that there be substantial non-governmental centers of power in the city.”
In other words, George said he believes in the necessity of numerous private institutions in which the people play an active role. These people are equally important, moreover, in the political institutions as they are in their own private institutions.
“So, in a sense, it is up to the people themselves, ourselves, to decide whether they will rise above the corruption that has demeaned parliamentary politics or permit it to infect the culture at large,” he said. “But the people are not some undifferentiated mass; they are people, you and me, individuals.”
In a question and answer session following his lecture, George was asked about the role that institutionalized universities play in a political regime, a question that enabled him to conclude his presentation with the idea of religious liberty that is so central to the Tocqueville Program and Notre Dame itself.
“Now, things can take on a special character and create a new wrinkle when your university is integrated with your faith, which I think still happens here at Notre Dame,” he said. “Maybe, I’ll take this opportunity just to say how easily lost that integration of faith and knowledge is. I encourage you to hang on to it. Don’t let your institution go down the road so many have gone down, including my own.”