Rex Murphy on Human Nature

“Those in government, with rare exceptions, neither trust nor admire those whom they govern. They see themselves as superior to their electorates.” That’s Rex Murphy’s view (National Post, May 8).

He goes on: the majority of Western politicians are “play actors, manipulators, main-chancers, entranced with their power and prestige, hop-scotching in and out of Davos, the G20 summits, Copenhagen this week, Huntsville the next, chatting up their fellow touts on hotlines and secure BlackBerrys, cocooned above and out of the play of ordinary life, and above all so superior and damn sure of themselves.”

What an outburst! (Murphy was describing Gordon Brown’s reaction to the Labour Party lady who had a question about “immigration.”)

But he’s right! You’ve got it right, Rex. You’ve just left out one thing. We are all like that! You’re describing human nature. We all want endless approval, and “reinforcement;” we want to be admired above other persons. And we also want to disguise this endless craving. We want to be more modest than anyone else. First in the category of modesty. (But occasionally we’re discovered. We leave the microphone open.)

Thomas Hobbes pictures human nature in this fashion. You and Hobbes are two of a kind, Rex. And to repeat: you’re right. So pity the poor politicians: they have so many more opportunities to entertain the universal fantasy: “I’m admired. I’m first. I’m just great. And so delightfully modest about it.”

The institutions of liberal democracy were devised expressly to secure us from the worst effects of that universal craving for pre-eminence among the talented men and women who take up careers in politics. Hence the contestation of political parties for office; the safeguards for free parliamentary speech, especially speech opposing the party in office; periodic elections, and the requirement that deposed politicians return to the general populace to live with the laws that they have made.

And of course – and not least – a free press. Thanks, Rex.

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1 Response to “Rex Murphy on Human Nature”


  1. 1 oonae July 21, 2010 at 10:31 am

    I don’t know if this is true. But it did remind me of Catherine Zuckert’s essay, “Tom Sawyer, Potential President.” She argues that Tom Sawyer craves recognition above all else (and more than most people do), that all of his mischief and all of his goodness can be traced to this craving, and that this is the characteristic of a (good) politician. It’s an excellent literary analysis; her examples and quotations are convincing. But the broader philosophical framework is, one could hope, more dubious.


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