“I am ready to serve,” said Kamala Harris. Shouldn’t we be surprised to hear politicians begging to serve? There are places for that. One can get a job at McDonald’s. If one is more of an altruist, one can serve as a nurse or in a private charity. (See “Kamala Harris Says She Is Ready to Serve as Biden Faces Age Scrutiny,” Wall Street Journal, February 12, 2024.)

If Ms. Harris were to serve at McDonald’s, she would soon discover a big difference. There, nobody is obliged to pay for or eat what he has not personally ordered. What is served must be what each one wants. A student of human affairs may suspect that this is precisely what Ms. Harris wants in “serving” politically: to force half the population to eat what she serves. In other words, as she later prudishly admits, what she wants is not to serve, but “to lead”:

Everyone who sees her on the job, Ms. Harris said, “walks away fully aware of my capacity to lead.”

Am I overdoing my point? The standard economic objection is that, in a free society, the state and its agents serve in the sense that they produce public goods, including public services, that everybody wants but cannot be produced on the market. In that sense, politicians do “serve” in the big McDonald’s of political society. They produce services such as the enforcement of contracts and the rule of law, public security, and territorial defense, instead of Big Macs. But this is not the humble role that politicians long for in a democratic regime with totalitarian pretensions. Moreover, public choice analysis has demonstrated the explanatory power of the hypothesis that politicians (and bureaucrats) are motivated by the same self-interestedness as ordinary people.

The problem is that instead of serving other people while pursuing their own interest like a McDonald’s employee does, politicians actively work against the interests of those who are not essential to their election. This is clear in a majoritarian democracy.

We may admit that the rulers of Anthony de Jasay’s “capitalist state,” whose only function would be to make sure that the state is not taken over by people intent at governing (that is, of favoring some at the cost of harming others), would be worthy of some special esteem. More generally, politicians who would try to maintain a free society with equal liberty for all might properly deserve the gratitude of everybody who benefits from such a regime—which must be virtually everybody, at least in the long run. But this is obviously not the sort of humble servants we have.