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Do the people serve the Rulers or do the Rulers serve the people?

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As events have been unfolding, first in Egypt and now in Libya, I’ve found myself mentally going back to a fateful moment in the Bible so similar to what is happening now.

The first book of kings begins by telling the story of Solomon. It initially portrays him as the wisest of men, who consolidated the kingdom, established peace, and built the Temple in Jerusalem.

But as the story unfolds it reads like Lord Acton’s dictum that all power tends to corrupt. By the end of his life we see Solomon with a thousand wives, immense wealth, engaged in monumental building projects. Frankly it isn’t difficult to imagine him today.

The people, even without social networking software, are on the brink of rebellion. And after his death they come to his son Rehoboam and say, Your father placed a heavy burden on us. Lighten the load. The young king goes to his father’s advisers, the elders, who tell him: if you are willing to serve the people, they will serve you. Wise advice, in retrospect. But Rehoboam didn’t take it.

Instead he went to own friends, who said in effect: don’t give in to the people. Show them who’s boss. Tell them: My father laid a heavy burden on you; I will make it heavier still. Or as Machiavelli put it: When it comes to politics, it’s better to be feared than to be loved.

Rehoboam does what many tyrants have done from that day to this. He asserts his rule by a show of force. The result is that the people rebelled and the nation split in two from which it never fully recovered.

To me what makes this passage fascinating is the way it portrays the great choice in politics, and it does so unexpectedly. The elders turn out to be the idealists, while the young are the realists. The elders see the choice in moral terms: respect the people and they will respect you. The young say: politics is about power, so use power.

It turns out that the idealists were right and the realists wrong. Had Rehoboam taken the elders’ advice he would have preserved the nation and his own rule. Instead, having come to power he came to believe in power, and in 3,000 years the lesson hasn’t yet been fully learned.

Still today the central question in politics remains: who serves whom? Do the people serve the rulers, or do the rulers serve the people? That remains the choice between tyranny and freedom.