There is only one way for a government to go right: by doing justice. There are many ways for a government to go wrong, however. The Book of Proverbs offers an illustrative list of the practices of bad government.
The first practice is dishonesty.
Arrogant lips are unsuited to a fool —
how much worse lying lips to a ruler! (17:7)
In this proverb, “arrogant lips” are parallel to “lying lips.” And since kings should not be fools, they should neither speak arrogantly nor dishonestly. Unfortunately, on the campaign trail, politicians are apt to both overstate the worthiness of their candidacy for office as well as lie about what they will accomplish when in office. What we should demand of government officials is modesty and truth-telling.
Proverbs warns us off dishonest politicians, but it also realistically portrays what happens when politicians are not held accountable to the truth.
If a ruler listens to lies,
all his officials become wicked (29:12).
Dishonesty is a rapidly mutating virus. It infects everything unless it is quickly and thoroughly destroyed.
The second practice of bad government is rage.
A king’s rage is like the roar of a lion,
but his favor is like dew on the grass (19:12).
A king’s wrath is like the roar of a lion;
he who angers him forfeits his life (20:2).
Both of these passages compare the king’s anger to a lion’s roar. And that’s what anger is, a loud, ravenous beast. In despotic governments, people who tick off the leaders often find themselves on the sharp end of a guillotine. Good government restrains its anger; bad government unleashes it. No wonder people living under tyranny and oppression live in constant fear. That’s not the way government is supposed to operate.
The third practice is tyranny.
Like a roaring lion or a charging bear
is a wicked man ruling over a helpless people (28:15).
Once again, a wicked king is portrayed as a “roaring lion.” The key word is helpless in the second line. Bad government takes advantage of its power over other people, most often to advance selfish interests. Good government, by contrast, directs its energies toward helping people, not rendering them helpless.
The fourth practice of bad government is self-interest. Proverbs 28:16 contrasts the “tyrannical ruler” with a person who hates “ill-gotten gain.”
A tyrannical ruler lacks judgment,
but he who hates ill-gotten gain will enjoy a long life.
Proverbs 29:4 builds on that contrast with another:
By justice a king gives a country stability,
but one who is greedy for bribes tears it down.
These proverbs contrast good government, which hates bribes and other forms of dirty money and leads to stability, with bad government, which loves them and leads to disaster for the country. Of every politician, we should ask: Are they in office for themselves or for others? They cannot be there for both.
There are more practices of bad government than dishonesty, rage, tyranny, and self-interest, but these are a representative sample of the kinds of ways that governments go wrong.