In my frequent reflections about our state as a society and a civilization, over and over again I am led into an examination of the crisis of legitimacy that exists in my own institutions and societies and those of other lands whom I have known. Within my own life I have been intensely critical of leadership myself, but as someone who has studied leadership closely and even occasionally been engaged in leadership, I have also recognized that all leaders will behave in ways that are seen as imperfect by those who are led, as the motives and intents of leaders are often impossible to understand by those who are led and who are not faced with the complex pushes and pulls and accountability that leaders have to deal with. In the crisis of legitimacy of our leaders, a far worse problem than the failures of leaders is a certain want of spirit in those who are led to accept the government of others unless it corresponds to their own perspectives. Given the diversity of people and their points of view, no leaders can hope to be respected by those who cannot accept the rule of governments that are not identical with themselves, and who cannot be bothered to govern themselves.
In his Lyceum Speech of 1838, Abraham Lincoln defended the importance of an unpopular quality, and that is the willingness to obey even bad laws rather than to lose the respect for laws and for the fundamental order of our society that is necessary for us to live peaceable lives. To govern ourselves, and to accept discipline from outside, requires a certain sort of humility that is all too rare within ourselves. There were laws that Abraham Lincoln disagreed with, but he wisely saw that the mob spirit that was hostile to imperfect legal orders was a worse threat to the well-being of society than bad laws themselves. By extolling the need for reason, Lincoln reminded us that we need to govern ourselves and respect others before we will be trusted and respected with authorities. Those who cannot be ruled will never be allowed to rule, after all.
This is an immensely painful and difficult lesson to learn. There are certainly rules and authorities that I struggle with immensely. There are laws that I have found to be rather hostile to my own interests and wishes and desires. All the same, such laws exist largely to protect and preserve the well-being of others, sometimes those whom I care about greatly. We must submit to the curbing of our own personal desires at times in order to protect and preserve that which we care for and hold dear. If there is a certain want of spirit in ourselves and in our times, we must do what we can to develop the sort of spirit within ourselves that can govern ourselves and that can respect those in authority so that we can, for if the greater fault lies with us, we cannot blame others as the source of our problems. If we cannot be governed, what justice is there in blaming our governments? If we cannot be led, what justice is there in criticizing our leaders? If we are corrupt, where does the ground exist for us to inveigh against the corruption of others, unless we condemn ourselves also?