“The beginning of wisdom,” said Confucius, “is to call things by their proper name.”
With the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, the British Commonwealth is entering a time of transition not seen in 70 years. What’s clearly mapped out is who will get the crown. What’s not so clear is the future of the monarchy as an institution.
At times like these, questions inevitably arise that are otherwise deemed too inconsequential to ask. What practical purpose does the monarchy fulfill, exactly? What are the powers of the head-of-state, and why should one person be given these powers?
But perhaps we should step back and ask a more preliminary question first: why should we care?
My gut response is to say we shouldn’t care. In fact, at first I wanted to ignore this story. I don’t think it’s healthy for a culture to be so fixated on political figures.
Having thought it through, however, I realized there’s an important point to be made here, and that this is the time to make it. After all, times of transition present opportunities to reflect and rethink things—not just the little things, but the big things too.
Leaders or Rulers?
One of the primary points of discussion is of course whether there should even be a monarchy. Many people (rightly) point out that the institution no longer serves any practical purpose, and that it’s about time we finally did away with the vestigial elements that remain to this day. At the very least, the taxpayers could surely use the break.
But others say it still serves an important purpose. The monarch is a figurehead, they say, even if only ceremonially. Society needs a leader that we can look to and rally around, and the monarch fills that role.
Now, it’s true that society needs leaders. But monarchs are not so much leaders as they are rulers. They did not win willing followers like true leaders. They were simply born into a government-privileged position. The authority and status they have exists merely because of power. They did nothing to earn it.
For some, this is what makes democracy better than monarchy. Whereas monarchs are simply entitled to power, democratically-elected politicians must win the hearts of their people. They must champion the causes people care about and earn their followers and admirers.
But while it’s tempting to think democracy is a more genuine form of leadership, this isn’t really the case. Politicians in democracies are rulers, too. Though they may inspire some, they still exert power over others. A genuine leader simply invites others to follow them. A politician, on the other hand, demands compliance with their wishes. When the politician can’t persuade, they resort to force. They compel the hearts they cannot win.
That’s not leadership. That’s tyranny.
It’s also not entirely true to say that their supporters are followers in the genuine sense of the word. Quite often, people vote for a politician simply because the politician has promised them a share of the money extorted from taxpayers. To that extent, the voters are acting more as co-conspirators, working with the politicians to profit at the expense of their neighbors.
That’s not a leader. That’s a demagogue.
The Beginning of Wisdom
The distinction between leaders and rulers is subtle, but important. It’s important because it paints a more accurate picture of what politics is really about, one that reveals the true nature of the beast.
“The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name,” said Confucius. When politicians get away with calling themselves our leaders, the euphemism makes their role sound lofty and inspiring. But when we call them what they really are, our rulers, the true nature of their position is laid bare. It’s akin to saying the emperor has no clothes. Except in this case, the con is the idea that the emperor is your friend, and the truth is that he is your master.
So yes, society absolutely needs leaders. But genuine leaders are those who set an example and inspire us to follow them. Do you see the difference? A leader has followers. A ruler has subjects. A leader inspires. A ruler commands. A leader wins loyalty. A ruler demands loyalty. A leader offers guidance. A ruler insists you follow his path. A leader sets an example. A ruler makes an example of those who refuse to obey.
So rather than obsessing over queens, kings, and presidents, let’s focus our time and attention on the genuine leaders in society, the people making a positive difference. Let’s not fixate on the Elizabeth IIs and the Charles IIIs of the world, or the Joe Bidens and Donald Trumps: rulers and demagogues who often bring out the worst in us and set us against each other. Instead, let’s pay more attention to the people—whether public figures or personal mentors—who bring out the best in us. Let’s look to entrepreneurial visionaries, creative trailblazers, philosophical, moral, and religious inspirations, and see what guidance they have to offer. Maybe they will inspire us to become true leaders ourselves.
Which would be a very good thing. The world could use a lot fewer rulers and a lot more genuine leaders.
This article was adapted from an issue of the FEE Daily email newsletter. Click here to sign up and get free-market news and analysis like this in your inbox every weekday.
Patrick Carroll has a degree in Chemical Engineering from the University of Waterloo and is an Editorial Fellow at the Foundation for Economic Education.
EDITORS NOTE: This FEE column is republished with permission. ©All rights reserved.