According to tradition, political leaders should place the common good above the interests of a fraction of the society. Leaders acting to benefit only themselves or a narrow portion of the society were considered corrupt.
In fact, classical and Christian notions of virtue and public service, with very few exceptions, had disppeared long before the existence of governments in their present form. A good politician could be characterised by a reluctance to accept more power than is necessary to perform the task. Oliver Cromwell, for example, refused the crown on more than one occasion, and was only prepared to govern as Lord Protector under a written Constitution – the Instrument of Government.
Similarly, President George Washington, although worn out by years of service to his country, reluctantly accepted the first presidency of the United States in 1789. Although Washington did not announce it publicly until September 1796, he was determined that under no condition would he allow his name to be put forward for a third term.
And thirdly, Solon (638?-559?BC), Athenian statesman and legislator, considered the founder of Athenian democracy. The following is taken from Plutarch’s Lives: Solon.
“Solon, however, himself says, that it was reluctantly at first that he engaged in state affairs, being afraid of the pride of one party and the greediness of the other; he was chosen archon [chief magistrate], however, after Philombrotus, and empowered to be an arbitrator and lawgiver; the rich consenting because he was wealthy, the poor because he was honest.”
“Yet, though he refused the government, (and the monarchy), he was not too mild in the affair; he did not show himself mean and submissive to the powerful, nor make his laws to pleasure those that chose him.”
Now when these laws were enacted, and some came to Solon every day, to commend or dispraise them, and to advise, if possible, to leave out or put in something, and many criticised and desired him to explain, and tell the meaning of such and such a passage, he, knowing that to do it was useless, and not to do it would get him ill-will, and desirous to bring himself out of all straits, and to escape all displeasure and exceptions, it being a hard thing, as he himself says-
“In great affairs to satisfy all sides,”
“as an excuse for travelling, bought a trading vessel, and, having leave for ten years’ absence, departed, hoping that by that time his laws would have become familiar.…”
To find such philanthropy in modern times is rare indeed. Perhaps we could take Nelson Mandela as an example, who served only one term as President of South Africa after a life-long struggle against apartheid. Or again, perhaps Museveni of Uganda, who although still in power, managed to find a way of controlling the factional disruption of his country, which was indeed extreme.
Politicians nowadays are career politicians, most of them loyal first to their political party, and only second to the community that they represent. In most cases this means that the first link in the democratic chain is blocked. Under these circumstances, representative democracy cannot exist.