Adler on Government

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.


Most Americans, I fear, do not know or appreciate the fact that citizenship is the primary political office under a constitutional government. In a republic, the citizens are the ruling class. They are the permanent and principal rulers. All other offices that are set up by the constitution are secondary.

The first and indispensable qualification for holding political office in any of the branches of government is to be a citizen. Officeholders, moreover, whether elected or selected, are citizens in office for a period of time, but all citizens are citizens for life. Officeholders, from the President down, are transient and instrumental rulers, unlike citizens in general who are permanent and principal rulers.

The distinction between the permanent status of citizenship and the transient or temporary character of government officials is obvious. But it may not be so obvious why I refer to citizens as the principal and call government officials instrumental rulers. To understand this point it is necessary to realize that the government of the United States is not in Washington, not in the White House, not in the Capitol, which houses the Congress, nor in any or all the public office buildings in the District of Columbia.

The government of the United States resides in us–we, the people. What resides in Washington is the administration of our government. We recognize this, at least verbally, when we say, after a Presidential election, that we have changed one administration for another. That change leaves the government of the United States unchanged, because its principal rulers are also its permanent rulers, whereas its instrumental rulers, its administrative officials–are transient and temporary.

Administrative officials, from the President down, are the instruments by which we, the people, govern ourselves. They serve us in our capacity as self-governing citizens of the Republic. Lincoln never tired of saying that he conceived his role to be that of a servant of the people who elected him. The word “servant” in this connection does not carry any invidious connotations of inferiority or menial status. Rather, it signifies the performance of an important function, one carrying great responsibility, a responsibility officials are called upon to discharge while they are serving a term in public office.

I am sorry to say that most Americans think of themselves as the subjects of government and regard the administrators in public office as their rulers, instead of thinking of themselves as the ruling class and public officials as their servants–the instrumentalities for carrying out their will.

It is of the utmost importance to persuade the citizens of the United States, both young and old, that they have misconceived their role in the political life of this country. If they can be persuaded to overcome this misconception, and come to view themselves in the right light, they will understand that their high responsibility as citizens carries with it the obligation to understand the ideas and ideals of our constitutional government.

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