That government is best which governs least

That government is best which governs least

“That government is best which governs least”

 Henry David Thoreau. (1817-62)

Thoreau was paraphrasing the motto of ”The United States Magazine and Democratic Review”: “The best government is that which governs least.” Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations by 1989,

I heartily accept the motto,—“That government is best which governs least;” and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which I also believe,—“That government is best which governs not at all;” and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have. Government is at best but an expedient; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient.

HENRY DAVID THOREAU, Civil Disobedience, first paragraph, Walden and Civil Disobedience, ed. Owen Thomas, p. 224 (1966). This essay was first published in 1849.  

  The motto Thoreau referred to was almost certainly that of The United States Magazine and Democratic Review, a literary-political monthly: “The best government is that which governs least.”

  Ralph Waldo Emerson expressed a similar sentiment in his essay “Politics:” “Hence the less government we have the better—the fewer laws and the less confided power.”—Essays: Second Series, in The Complete Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. 1, p. 302 (1929).

“When the government fears the people, there is liberty;

When the people fear the government, there is tyranny.” Thomas Jefferson?

 “I am a warrior so my son can be a farmer and his son can be a poet.”  

This was actually said by John Adams; the actual quote is as follows:  “I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.” – John Adams to Abigail Adams, [post 12 May 1780] 

Governments are typically more harmful than helpful and therefore cannot be justified. Democracy is no cure for this, as majorities simply by virtue of being majorities do not also gain the virtues of wisdom and justice.
The judgment of an individual’s conscience is not necessarily or even likely inferior to the decisions of a political body or majority, and so “[i]t is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right…. Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice.”[6]
Indeed, you serve your country poorly if you do so by suppressing your conscience in favor of the law – your country needs consciences more than it needs conscienceless robots.
It is disgraceful to be associated with the United States government in particular. “I cannot for an instant recognize as my government [that] which is the slave’s government also.”[7]
The government is not just a little corrupt or unjust in the course of doing its otherwise-important work, but in fact, the government isprimarily an agent of corruption and injustice. Because of this, it’s “not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize.”[8]
Political philosophers have counseled caution about revolution because the upheaval of revolution typically causes a lot of expense and suffering. However, such a cost/benefit analysis isn’t appropriate when the government is actively facilitating an injustice like slavery: Such a thing is fundamentally immoral and even if it would be difficult and expensive to stop it, it must be stopped because it is wrong. “This people must cease to hold slaves, and to make war on Mexico, though it cost them their existence as a people.”[9]
We can’t blame this problem solely on pro-slavery Southern politicians, but must put the blame on those here in Massachusetts, “who are more interested in commerce and agriculture than they are in humanity, and are not prepared to do justice to the slave and to Mexico, cost what it may…. There are thousands who are in opinion opposed to slavery and to the war, who yet in effect do nothing to put an end to them.”[10] (See also: Thoreau’s “Slavery in Massachusetts” which also advances this argument.)
Don’t just wait passively for an opportunity to vote for justice. Voting for justice is as ineffective as wishing for justice; what you need to do is to actually be just. This is not to say that you have an obligation to devote your life to fighting for justice, but you do have an obligation not to commit injustice and not to give injustice your practical support.
Paying taxes is one way in which otherwise well-meaning people collaborate in injustice. People who proclaim that the war in Mexico is wrong and that it is wrong to enforce slavery contradict themselves if they fund both things by paying taxes. The same people who applaud soldiers for refusing to fight an unjust war are not themselves willing to refuse to fund the government that started the war.
In a republic like ours, people often think that the proper response to an unjust law is to try to use the political process to change the law, but to obey and respect the law until it is changed. But if the law is itself clearly unjust, and the lawmaking process is not designed to quickly obliterate such unjust laws, then the law deserves no respect – break the law. In our case, the lawmaking process is of no help, and in fact the Constitution itself – which enshrines the institution of slavery – is evil. Abolitionists should completely withdraw their support of the government and stop paying taxes, even if this means courting imprisonment.
“Under a government which imprisons unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison…. where the State places those who are notwith her, but against her, – the only house in a slave State in which a free man can abide with honor…. Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence. A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight. If the alternative is to keep all just men in prison, or give up war and slavery, the State will not hesitate which to choose. If a thousand men were not to pay their tax bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood. This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable revolution, if any such is possible.”[11]
The government will retaliate. I prefer living simply because I therefore have less to lose. “I can afford to refuse allegiance to Massachusetts…. It costs me less in every sense to incur the penalty of disobedience to the State than it would to obey. I should feel as if I were worth less in that case.”[12]
I was briefly imprisoned for refusing to pay the poll tax, but even in jail felt freer than the people outside. I considered it an interesting experience and came out of it with a new perspective on my relationship to the government and its citizens. (He was released the next day when “someone interfered, and paid that tax”.)[13]
I am willing to pay the highway tax, which goes to pay for something of benefit to my neighbors, but I am opposed to taxes that go to support the government itself – even if I can not tell if my particular contribution will eventually be spent on an unjust project or a beneficial one. “I simply wish to refuse allegiance to the State, to withdraw and stand aloof from it effectually.”[14]
Government is a man-made disaster, not a natural one, and so I like to think that its makers can be reasoned with. As governments go, ours, with all its faults, is not the worst and even has some admirable qualities. But we can and should insist on better. “The progress from an absolute to a limited monarchy, from a limited monarchy to a democracy, is a progress toward a true respect for the individual…. Is a democracy, such as we know it, the last improvement possible in government? Is it not possible to take a step further towards recognizing and organizing the rights of man? There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly.”[15]
Source: Wikipedia

“Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one.”

Fear is the foundation of most government. – John Adams

A government, for protecting business only, is but a carcass, and soon falls by its own corruption and decay.” –Amos Bronson Alcott

Our Congress is the finest body of men money can buy.” – Maury Amsterdam

It is often said that men are ruled by their imaginations; but it would be truer to say they are governed by the weakness of their imaginations.” – Walter Bagehot

Being nice to governments doesn’t work, they are such lying bastards.” – Joy Baluch

Bureaucracy is a giant mechanism operated by pygmies.” – Honore De Balzac

Government is the great fiction, through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everybody else.“- Frederic Bastiat

Governing today means giving acceptable signs of credibility. It is like advertising and it is the same effect that is achieved — commitment to a scenario.” – Jean Baudrillard

Beaverbrook is so pleased to be in the government that he is like the town tart who finally married the Mayor.“- Beverley Baxter

The worst thing in the world next to anarchy, is government.” – Henry Ward Beecher

The object of government in peace and in war is not the glory of rulers or of races, but the happiness of the common man.” – Baron William Henry Beveridge

A government must not waiver once it has chosen it’s course. It must not look to the left or right but go forward.” – Otto Von Bismarck

The art of government is not to let me grow stale.” – Napoleon Bonaparte

Public instruction should be the first object of government.” – Napoleon Bonaparte

Large legislative bodies resolve themselves into coteries, and coteries into jealousies.” – Napoleon Bonaparte

The government must always be a step ahead of the popular movement.” – Count Boytzwnburg

But their determination to banish fools foundered ultimately in the installation of absolute idiots.” – Basil Bunting

Nothing turns out to be so oppressive and unjust as a feeble government.” – Edmund Burke

Too bad that all the people who know how to run the country are busy driving taxicabs and cutting hair.” –George Burns

The point to remember is what government gives it must first take away” – John S. Caldwell

By definition, a government has no conscience. Sometimes it has a policy, but nothing more.” – Albert Camus

Men are to be guided only by their self-interests. Good government is a good balancing of these; and, except a keen eye and appetite for self-interest, requires no virtue in any quarter. To both parties it is emphatically a machine: to the discontented, a taxing-machine; to the contented, a machine for securing property. Its duties and its faults are not those of a father, but of an active parish-constable.” – Thomas Carlyle

In the long-run every Government is the exact symbol of its People, with their wisdom and unwisdom; we have to say, Like People like Government.” – Thomas Carlyle

Thou camest out of thy mother’s belly without government, thou hast liv’d hitherto without government, and thou mayst be carried to thy long home without government, when it shall please the Lord. How many people in this world live without government, yet do well enough, and are well look’d upon?” – Miguel De Cervantes

Good government is the outcome of private virtue.” – John Jay Chapman

Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those others that have been tried from time to time.” – Winston Churchill

Though the people support the government; the government should not support the people.” – Grover Cleveland

The three great ends which a statesman ought to propose to himself in the government of a nation, are — 1. Security to possessors; 2. Facility to acquirers; and, 3. Hope to all.” – Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Nations it may be have fashioned their Governments, but the Governments have paid them back in the same coin.” – Joseph Conrad

You can only govern men by serving them. The rule is without exception.” – Victor Cousin

Remember that a government big enough to give you everything you want is also big enough to take away everything you have.” – Davy Crockett

I say to myself that I mustn’t let myself be cut off in there, and yet the moment I enter my bag is taken out of my hand, I’m pushed in, shepherded, nursed and above all cut off, alone. Whitehall envelops me.” – Richard Crossman

The constitution is not neutral. It was designed to take the government off the backs of people.” – William O. Douglas

Of all tasks of government the most basic is to protect its citizens against violence.” – John Foster Dulles

Every form of government tends to perish by excess of its basic principles.” – William J. Durant

In a healthy nation there is a kind of dramatic balance between the will of the people and the government, which prevents its degeneration into tyranny.” – Albert Einstein

Nothing is more destructive of respect for the government and the law of the land than passing laws which cannot be enforced.” – Albert Einstein

The less government we have the better.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Truth is the glue that holds government together.” – Gerald R. Ford

Those who govern, having much business on their hands, do not generally like to take the trouble of considering and carrying into execution new projects. The best public measures are therefore seldom adopted from previous wisdom, but forced by the occasion.” – Benjamin Franklin

An educated people can be easily governed.” – (Frederick II) Frederick The Great

The government solution to a problem is usually as bad as the problem.” – Milton Friedman

Governments never learn. Only people learn.” – Milton Friedman

Many people want the government to protect the consumer. A much more urgent problem is to protect the consumer from the government.” – Milton Friedman

It would be foolish to suggest that government is a good custodian of aesthetic goals. But, there is no alternative to the state.” – John Kenneth Galbraith

The contented and economically comfortable have a very discriminating view of government. Nobody is ever indignant about bailing out failed banks and failed savings and loans associations. But when taxes must be paid for the lower middle class and poor, the government assumes an aspect of wickedness.” – John Kenneth Galbraith

It is hard to feel individually responsible with respect to the invisible processes of a huge and distant government.” – John W. Gardner

To rule is not so much a question of the heavy hand as the firm seat.” – Jose Ortega Y Gasset

It is the duty of government to make it difficult for people to do wrong, easy to do right.” – William E. Gladstone

The best government is that which teaches us to govern ourselves.” – Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

A government that is big enough to give you all you want is big enough to take it all away.” – Barry Goldwater

Even to observe neutrality you must have a strong government.” – Alexander Hamilton

All good government must begin at home.” – H. R. Haweis

When any government, or church for that matter, undertakes to say to it’s subjects, this you may not read, this you must not see, this you are forbidden to know the end result is tyranny and oppression, no matter how holy the motive.” – Robert Heinlein

Well, fancy giving money to the Government! Might as well have put it down the drain.” – A. P. Herbert

Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds. [The Motto Of The U.S. Postal Service]” – Herodotus

The greater the hold of government upon the life of the individual citizen, the greater the risk of war.” – John Hospers

The government is best which makes itself unnecessary.” – Karl Wilhelm Von Humboldt

Nothing is more surprising than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few.” – David Hume

Government can be bigger than any of the players on the field as a referee, but it has no right to become one of the players.” – Austin Igleheart

There are no necessary evils in government. Its evils exist only in its abuses.” – Andrew Jackson

As long as our government is administered for the good of the people, and is regulated by their will; as long as it secures to us the rights of persons and of property, liberty of conscience and of the press, it will be worth defending.” – Andrew Jackson

Whenever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights.” – Thomas Jefferson

The care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only legitimate object of good government.” – Thomas Jefferson

My reading of history convinces me that most bad government results from too much government.” – Thomas Jefferson

I have no ambition to govern men. It is a painful and thankless office” – Thomas Jefferson

That government is the strongest of which every man feels himself a part.” – Thomas Jefferson

A man without a vote is man without protection.” – Lyndon B. Johnson

I would not give half a guinea to live under one form of government rather than another. It is of no moment to the happiness of an individual.” – Samuel Johnson

Safety of the state is the highest law.” – Justinian

It is function of government to invent philosophies to explain the demands of its own convenience.” – Murray Kempton

The basis of effective government if public confidence.” – John F. Kennedy

Of the best rulers, The people only know that they exist; the next best they love and praise the next they fear; and the next they revile. When they do not command the people’s faith, some will lose faith in them, and then they resort to oaths! But of the best when their task is accomplished, their work done, the people all remark, We have done it ourselves.” – Lao-Tzu

The supply of government exceeds demand.” – Lewis H. Lapham

To govern is to choose. To appear to be unable to choose is to appear to be unable to govern.” – Nigel Lawson

Any cook should be able to run the country.” – Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

Generosity is a part of my character, and I therefore hasten to assure this Government that I will never make an allegation of dishonesty against it wherever a simple explanation of stupidity will suffice.” – Leslie Baron Lever

You could afford your house without the government if it weren’t for the government.” – Rush Limbaugh

A Government of the people, by the people and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” – Abraham Lincoln

It is perfectly true that that government is best which governs least. It is equally true that that government is best which provides most.” – Walter Lippmann

Freedom of men under government is to have a standing rule to live by, common to every one of that society, and made by the legislative power vested in it; a liberty to follow my own will in all things, when the rule prescribes not, and not to be subject to the inconstant, unknown, arbitrary will of another man.” – John Locke

Government has no other end, but the preservation of property.” – John Locke

Nothing is so galling to a people not broken in from the birth as a paternal, or in other words a meddling government, a government which tells them what to read and say and eat and drink and wear.” – Thomas B. Macaulay

We must judge a government by its general tendencies and not by its happy accidents.” – Thomas B. Macaulay

What is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” – James Madison

Every country has the government it deserves.” – Joseph De Maistre

Congress is so strange. A man gets up to speak and says nothing. Nobody listens, then everybody disagrees.” –Boris Marshalov

The whole duty of government is to prevent crime and to preserve contracts.” – Lord Melbourne

Government is actually the worst failure of civilized man. There has never been a really good one, and even those that are most tolerable are arbitrary, cruel, grasping and unintelligent.” – H. L. Mencken

Not wishing to be disturbed over moral issues of the political economy, Americans cling to the notion that the government is a sort of automatic machine, regulated by the balancing of competing interests.” – C. Wright Mills

To administer is to govern: to govern is to reign. That is the essence of the problem.” – Comte De Mirabeau

It is very easy to accuse a government of imperfection, for all mortal things are full of it.” – Michel Eyquem De Montaigne

Any party which takes credit for the rain must not be surprised if its opponents blame it for the drought.” –Dwight Whitney Morrow

The government can destroy wealth but it cannot create wealth, which is the product of labor and management working with creation.” – Bill Murray

No government is safe unless fortified by goodwill.” – Cornelius Nepos

For its part, Government will listen. We will strive to listen in new ways — to the voices of quiet anguish, to voices that speak without words, the voices of the heart, to the injured voices, and the anxious voices, and the voices that have despaired of being heard.” – Richard M. Nixon

If you join government, calmly make your contribution and move on. Don’t go along to get along; do your best and when you have to — and you will — leave, and be something else.” – Peggy Noonan

The government is huge, stupid, greedy and makes nosy, officious and dangerous intrusions into the smallest corners of life — this much we can stand. But the real problem is that government is boring. We could cure or mitigate the other ills Washington visits on us if we could only bring ourselves to pay attention to Washington itself. But we cannot.” – P. J. O’Rourke

Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.” – P. J. O’Rourke

Society in every state is a blessing, but Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one.” – Thomas Paine

That state is best ordered when the wicked have no command, and the good have.” – Pittacus

The punishment which the wise suffer who refuse to take part in the government, is to live under the government of worse men.” – Plato

It is easy to rule over the good.” – Titus Maccius Plautus

For Forms of Government let fools contest; whatever is best administered is best.” – Alexander Pope

In the councils of a state, the question is not so much, what ought to be done? As, what can be done?” – French Proverb

Office without pay makes thieves.” – German Proverb

Who so taketh in hand to frame any state or government ought to presuppose that all men are evil, and at occasions will show themselves so to be.” – Sir Walter Raleigh

Government does not solve problems; it subsidizes them.” – Ronald Reagan

Government is like a baby. An alimentary canal with a big appetite at one end and no sense of responsibility at the other.” – Ronald Reagan

Governments tend not to solve problems, only to rearrange them.” – Ronald Reagan

Today, if you invent a better mousetrap, the government comes along with a better mouse.” – Ronald Reagan

A government is the only vessel that leaks from the top.” – James Reston

The ship of state is the only known vessel that leaks from the top.” – James Reston

I don’t make jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts.” – Will Rogers

Be thankful we’re not getting all the government we’re paying for.” – Will Rogers

It is the duty of the President to propose and it is the privilege of the Congress to dispose.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt

The government is us; we are the government, you and I.” – Theodore Roosevelt

There is something to be said for government by a great aristocracy which has furnished leaders to the nation in peace and war for generations; even a democrat like myself must admit this. But there is absolutely nothing to be said for government by a plutocracy, for government by men very powerful in certain lines and gifted with the money touch, but with ideals which in their essence are merely those of so many glorified pawnbrokers.” –Theodore Roosevelt

I don’t judge a regime by the damning criticism of the opposition, but by the ingenuous praise of the partisan.“- Jean Rostand

The body politic, as well as the human body, begins to die as soon as it is born, and carries itself the causes of its destruction.” – Jean Jacques Rousseau

There is no nonsense so arrant that it cannot be made the creed of the vast majority by adequate government action.” – Bertrand Russell

The mechanism that directs government cannot be virtuous, because it is impossible to thwart every crime, to protect oneself from every criminal without being criminal too; that which directs corrupt mankind must be corrupt itself; and it will never be by means of virtue, virtue being inert and passive, that you will maintain control over vice, which is ever active: the governor must be more energetic than the governed.” – Marquis De Sade

In our consumer confidence surveys, we ask people whether they think government economic policy is good, fair, or poor. Increasingly, the answer we get is just plain laughter.” – Jay Schmiedeskamp

The art of government is the organization of idolatry. The bureaucracy consists of functionaries; the aristocracy, of idols; the democracy, of idolaters. The populace cannot understand the bureaucracy: it can only worship the national idols.” – George Bernard Shaw

Men are not governed by justice, but by law or persuasion. When they refuse to be governed by law or persuasion, they have to be governed by force or fraud, or both.” – George Bernard Shaw

Government is an evil; it is only the thoughtlessness and vices of men that make it a necessary evil. When all men are good and wise, government will of itself decay.” – Percy Bysshe Shelley

No man undertakes a trade he has not learned, even the meanest; yet everyone thinks himself sufficiently qualified for the hardest of all trades, that of government.” – Socrates

Society is well governed when its people obey the magistrates, and the magistrates obey the law.” – Solon

The Athenians govern the Greeks; I govern the Athenians; you, my wife, govern me; your son governs you.” –Themistocles

The government of the world I live in was not framed, like that of Britain, in after-dinner conversations over the wine.” – Henry David Thoreau

Government is at best but an expedient; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient. The objections which have been brought against a standing army, and they are many and weighty, and deserve to prevail, may also at last be brought against a standing government.” – Henry David Thoreau

That government is best which governs least.” – Henry David Thoreau

This American government — what is it but a tradition, though a recent one, endeavoring to transmit itself unimpaired to posterity, but each instant losing some of its integrity? It has not the vitality and force of a single living man; for a single man can bend it to his will.” – Henry David Thoreau

In quiet and untroubled times it seems to every administrator that it is only by his efforts that the whole population under his rule is kept going, and in this consciousness of being indispensable every administrator finds the chief reward of his labor and efforts. While the sea of history remains calm the ruler-administrator in his frail bark, holding on with a boat hook to the ship of the people and himself moving, naturally imagines that his efforts move the ship he is holding on to. But as soon as a storm arises and the sea begins to heave and the ship to move, such a delusion is no longer possible. The ship moves independently with its own enormous motion, the boat hook no longer reaches the moving vessel, and suddenly the administrator, instead of appearing a ruler and a source of power, becomes an insignificant, useless, feeble man.” – Count Leo Tolstoy

The auditor is a watchdog and not a bloodhound.” – Lord Justice Topes

Whenever you have an efficient government, you have a dictatorship.” – Harry S. Truman

No more distressing moment can ever face a British government than that which requires it to come to a hard, fast and specific decision.” – Barbara Tuchman

It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.” – Mark Twain

We have the best government that money can buy.” – Mark Twain

Government is either organized benevolence or organized madness; its peculiar magnitude permits no shading.“- John Updike

I love my government not least for the extent to which it leaves me alone.” – John Updike

Governments need to have both shepherds and butchers.” – Voltaire

It is dangerous to be right when the government is wrong.” – Voltaire

The best government is a benevolent tyranny tempered by an occasional assassination.” – Voltaire

It is doubtful that the government knows much more than the public does about how government [Economic] policies will work.” – W. Allen Wallis

Government is not reason and it is not eloquence. It is force! Like fire it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master. Never for a moment should it be left to irresponsible action.” – George Washington

Mankind, when left to themselves, are unfit for their own government.” – George Washington

The whole country is one vast insane asylum and they’re letting the worst patients run the place.” – Robert Welch

The monarchy is a labor intensive industry.” – Harold Wilson

An ambassador is an honest person sent to lie abroad for their country.” – Sir Henry Wotton

Do not ask what the Government can do for you. Ask why it doesn’t.” – Gerhard Kocher

Believe me – the Government will help you anytime it needs you.” – Gerhard Kocher

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