The Conservatism of ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’

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Curt Smith and Roland Orzabal in the music video for Everybody Wants to Rule the World. (Tears for Fears/YouTube)

Pull yourself up by your bootstraps and listen closely to Tears for Fears’ 1985 anthem.

The Tears for Fears mega-hit “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” came out in 1985, and boy does it sound like it. Synthetic drums, synthetic bass, synthetic everything — it almost feels like Reagan is still in the White House.

Though the sound is firmly rooted in 1985, the lyrics are timeless, and, whether they realized it or not, Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith, the duo who compose Tears for Fears, wrote a conservative pop song. “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” is a Federalist paper with a shuffle beat.

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Everybody wants to rule the world. Doesn’t matter if you’re a lib or a paleocon. It’s part of our nature as human beings. “Welcome to your life, / There’s no turning back,” Orzabal’s vocals begin. But the cold-eyed view, that realpolitik approach, of the world and the self as it is — that’s where it starts trending conservative. You’re born into the world a certain way and in certain circumstances. There’s no tabula rasa, no matter what John Locke may tell you. That being the case, we don’t throw up our hands in frustration.

The first refrain, “Acting on your best behavior, / Turn your back on mother nature, / Everybody wants to rule the world,” illustrates that idea. Our individualism — yes, our selfishness — motivates us to act on our best behavior to be agreeable to others who will help us get what we want.

“Turn your back on mother nature” has a deeper meaning than an environmentalist one, though. When we turn our backs on mother nature, we are putting ourselves in charge. The first words of the second verse are “It’s my own design.” We are no longer creatures in our environment, but rather creators of our environment. The question is how good our design will be:

Help me to decide,
Help me make the most
Of freedom and of pleasure.
Nothing ever lasts forever,
Everybody wants to rule the world.

Making the most of freedom and of pleasure is another way of phrasing what the Founders believed they were doing in the late 1700s. They wrote that the purpose of government was to secure life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And they wrote, “Whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.” Nothing ever lasts forever.

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In view of everybody wanting to rule the world, how should a government be designed? With ambition to counteract ambition, Madison wrote. In Federalist No. 51, he argued that government be designed in such a way “that the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights.” You aren’t going to ever completely train the natural selfishness out of people, so it’s best to design systems assuming people will be selfish.

Orzabal seems to come to the same conclusion. As you struggle to follow him to that low D on “world” at the end of every refrain, you can’t help but feel that he’s pulling you back to an immutable fact of life.

That doesn’t mean our natural selfishness is a good thing. This isn’t a Randian song. When “the walls come tumbling down . . . I’ll be right behind you,” they sing. We persevere through danger and strife with our loved ones even though it might not benefit us individually in the moment. That’s also a natural instinct, and it’s in tension with our natural selfishness.

The tension between different parts of human nature is evident in the music video. You hear a song about the nature of power and world domination, but you see images of people driving a cool vintage car, flying a glider, and riding motorbikes and ATVs in California. Our selfishness makes us want to rule the world, but it also makes us want to be left alone. Power’s cool, but putting the top down and going for a drive on a sunny day in San Diego is pretty cool too.

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While there are no indications that Orzabal and Smith are conservatives, they managed to write a conservative song — and not just because it brings you back to a time when conservatives had control of the federal government. (That’s not the only application to modern American politics: “I can’t stand this indecision / Married with a lack of vision” is a pretty good conservative critique of compass-less Washington fixtures like, say, the current House minority leader.) “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” is a song about personal ambition, no collectivism here. But it’s also about the challenge of channeling that personal ambition to good ends. That’s not stuck in the ’80s. That’s conservatism, baby.

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