He Governs Best Who Governs Least

The proper nature and role of government has no doubt been hotly debated since the notion of government itself first arose.

In Europe we take almost for granted the expansive presence of the state but in America the current row over whether government should widen public access to health cover has brought the question of the scope and ambition of government once again to the fore.

The young American republic was founded in large measure in reaction to the remote and unaccountable government of the American colonies from London.  In this context two great proponents of democracy, Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson, both argued that the role of the state should be as limited as possible.

In Common Sense, published in January 1776, Paine declared; “Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one.”  Meanwhile Jefferson is often quoted as saying both; “My reading of history convinces me that most bad government results from too much government,” and “That government is best which governs the least, because its people discipline themselves.”  The Jefferson quotes are problematic because they do not appear in his writings and the earliest known attributions were made only decades later.  The remarks attributed to Jefferson may merely be the efforts of lesser men to appropriate the statesman’s authority for themselves, nevertheless he certainly made a case for government to leave plenty of room for business so let us consider the proposition that small government is best.

Paine and Jefferson lived in an age when government did not provide healthcare, nor did it fund education. Roads were often funded and maintained through tolls. The growth of the canal network, just beginning in Europe, was largely privately funded.

In their day government was far more ready to interfere in the personal lives and beliefs of its citizens and used taxation disproportionately to fund military adventurism and for the benefit of the ruling classes while delivering few services that made an appreciable difference to the lives of the majority of citizens.

Given their experience of government lived it’s hardly surprising that Jefferson and Paine saw it as a necessary evil that might at best restrict the ability of its citizens to do ill and at worst prevented them doing right while doing ill itself.

Graham Robb, in his excellent book ‘The Discovery of France’, captures the sense among some in the more remote regions of France that government was simply trouble. He tells the story of a young an unfortunate surveyor who was set upon and killed by a group of villagers for whom the arrival of an official looking stranger could only mean one thing: taxes.

Given the way these taxes were spent; on ruinous wars and indulgent palaces, many preferred to think of the state as being there primarily to preserve the peace and nurture the growth of civil society.

A century after Paine William Gladstone captured the notion when he declared: “It is the duty of government to make it difficult for people to do wrong, easy to do right.”

These days the purpose of government is interpreted in a wider variety of ways. At the minimalist end of the spectrum libertarians and anarchists see government as something near spontaneous that comes into being when a group of like minded citizens decide that something needs to be done collectively; while at the other Communists, fascists and other authoritarians extend state control to almost every area of the personal lives of the citizenry, remove the ability of citizens to mandate government and either follow the socialist command economic model or, in a growing number of instances, maintains authoritarian control of personal and political behaviour while allowing greater freedom in the sphere of business, so that liberty is expressed economically but not socially or politically.

So where would Paine and Jefferson have stood?  There’s little doubt that both men would have resisted any unnecessary restrictions on personal liberty.  What constitutes necessary and unnecessary is of course a matter for debate.  Indeed it’s a debate that is at the heart of almost all democratic politics.

Both Paine and Jefferson were entrepreneurial and pro business to a considerable degree.  Paine designed and patented a cast iron bridge, though he failed to find a customer for his design.  He also took the side of a private bank which the Commonwealth of Massachusetts tried to force to accept its own paper currency at face value and which the bank had good reason to believe was not worth it.

Jefferson, for his part, was a supporter of free enterprise: “Having always observed that public works are much less advantageously managed than the same are by private hands, I have thought it better for the public to go to market for whatever it wants which is to be found there; for there competition brings it down to the minimum of value. I have no doubt we can buy brass cannon at market cheaper than we could make iron ones.” ( to William B. Bibb, 1808. ME 12:107)

However Paine and Jefferson were both also wary of the power of business, just as they were the power of organised religion and of government.  “I hope we shall… crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country.” wrote Jefferson (to George Logan, 1816. FE 10:69).

So both men favoured liberty in the private sphere and the public spheres of commerce, religion and politics while being on guard against any appropriation of power by any of them.  Jefferson again: “Democrats… consider the people as the safest depository of power in the last resort; they cherish them, therefore, and wish to leave in them all the powers to the exercise of which they are competent.” (to William Short, 1825. ME 16:96)

These early democratic principles are no less relevant today. Government should be the instrument of action and not the repository of power.

Power must rest with the people.  If the people will their government to perform a task it should perform it (with the rider that good citizens have a duty to speak up in opposition if the majority wishes its government to act as an instrument of evil). Government, in short, should not go looking for work.

However that does not mean that there isn’t plenty for it to do.  In Britain the people wish the government to use the people’s collective buying power to provide healthcare and education.  It acts to protect the environment and to prevent crime while defending the realm.  Many would like it to extend its remit to once again take a greater role in providing transport and utilities.

However the extent of government activity must be decided by and limited by the people.

In the United States distrust of government has become totemic, particularly on the Republican right where the tone is becoming ever more shrill in opposition to almost an activity by government.  Healthcare reform is the issue over which libertarian Republicans and reformist Democrats are drawn up against one another on the political battlefield.

What the Obama administration is proposing appears to be this: that the government uses its buying power on behalf of the American people to obtain healthcare at a discount and passes on the savings to hose who wish to avail themselves of it through government health insurance.  There is no suggestion that the government will provide healthcare directly, not that citizens will be denied their choice of health insurance.  What the government is, in effect, proposing is that it helps make the market through additional competition.  For right wing Republicans this is beyond the pale.

Paine, Jefferson and even a Republican in the shape of Teddy Roosevelt were quite clear about the dangers of corporations acting as monopolies or cartels to cheat customers or gain power. Surely they would have approved of President Obama’s actions in so far as they are intended to stimulate the market through additional competition, albeit from the state as an insurance provider.

The acid test surely is whether the people so will it.  Tens of millions of Americans have no health insurance.  Tens of millions more are inadequately covered.  If these Americans cannot ask their government to exercise their collective muscle of their behalf then what is government to do?  Is it to refuse a reasonable request?  If so what constitutes a mandate?

These are fundamental questions for modern democracies.  For Greens the principles of democracy as set out by Paine, Jefferson and their contemporaries are as true as ever.  Government is there as an enabler and an enactor.  Once government seeks new roles without its having been so mandated by the people it has overstepped its bounds.


3 Responses to “He Governs Best Who Governs Least”

  1. As a new member I am glad to have found this article..

    Agreed that Health Care is almost a battle for America’s soul.

    Concerned that the current democratic process is not capable of resolving the problem

    Now that Galbraiths Managerial Revolution has come about in spades with, for instance banks more powerful than governments, and the media devoted to profit and trivia; how can Paine’s will of the people be expressed?

    It may be that the innate good sense of the majoity will prevail or maybe not?

    Michael Stevens

    • headstrongclub Says:


      I think your question about how the will of the people can be expressed is arguably the key question for democratic societies as we enter the next decade.

      It’s also tied in to how we equip ourselves and our fellow citizens with the information and understanding to participate positively – and by that I do not mean how we give them the information to help them agree with us but rather how we encourage them to agree or disagree in a thoughtful and informed manner.

      As you say the media is obsessed with trivia. Religion seems to have been supplanted as the opiate of the people by celebrity. Advertising has become an industry which both peddles unhappiness and then offers consumption as the means to cure it.

      However the problems don’t change the fundamentals; we need, if not an activist citizenry then at least an engaged citizenry if democracy isn’t simply to degrade until it becomes no more than a subtle means of control manipulated by international business and finance.

  2. So what can be done except refine the definition of the problem and discuss an outcome?

    Incidentally I have your picture but no name. Did David Powell start this blog. I would insert my picture if I could find out how.


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