The best government is that which governs least?

I’m afraid that the best I can bring to the table that this was a pithy statement I would have been in full agreement with when I was younger. But like most bumper sticker philosophical statements, it really doesn’t stand up to a lot of scrutiny. At the very least I’d have to amend the statement to, “The best government is that which governs effectively with the least amount of intervention.” But I don’t inherently see the government as bad these days.

I know someone who thinks this way and one of his political heroes is Calvin Coolidge. Which can be understood in the context that a do nothing president is better than a president who does something that turns out to be a disaster.

Unless the “nothing” the president does is “not attempt to prevent a disaster”.

True. That sums up Coolidge’s successor Herbert Hoover.

Except that Hoover, Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson and Clinton all were president at the start of one or more surplus years.

Your Fear Itself guy came within a whisker in 1938, and would likely have seen the same post-war surpluses as Truman had he lived out his 4th term.

What the ideal ebb and flow of deficits should be is above my pay grade. But it is reasonable to suspect that deficits, without an occasional respite, are a mistake.

Since he ran consistent surpluses, you could, from this premise, argue that he was part of a robbery conspiracy.

Over 4,000 banks failed under his watch. If he had pushed for bank deposit insurance — common internationally by then — the farm depression, which later became a general depression, would not have hit the U.S. so much harder than it did most other countries.

And how is any of that incorrect then? Pre-new deal, under Coolidge, the top tax rate was 46%, which is higher than it is now, and had only recently come down from 58%, which was a recent change from 73%. Jim Crow was in full force, using the might of the government to oppress large portions of our population. Miscegenation was illegal in most states, and not just prohibiting marriage, but sexual relations or cohabitation. Homosexuality was illegal as well. Abortion was illegal, as was birth control. Women had essentially no rights. The govt was prohibiting the freedoms of large swaths of our population, while allowing industries to pollute freely with severely unsafe workplaces. Nothing I said was in the least bit incorrect, much less “wildly”.

Under Coolidge, the govt worked for the wealthy, and was used as an instrument to keep everyone else down. And of course, your hero Coolidge also set up the conditions for the worst economic disaster this country has ever seen.

It is an ideal pointed to by naïve libertarians who believe that, as a white male, they would be at the top of the social and economic structure, even though they most likely would end up working backbreaking manual labor for bare survival wages in a harsh dangerous environment and be left to die once they no were no longer fit to perform labor.

But, others had it worse, and for some people, that’s enough.

Yeah, AIUI Coolidge’s tax reductions were an attempt to get away from the high wartime tax rates after using them to reduce high war debt levels.

It’s weird to me how some people perceive the Coolidge administration as some kind of hands-off anti-government ideal. Not only were there all the socially conservative legal restrictions you mention (and the infamous Prohibition laws as well), but the Coolidge years also saw the Johnson-Reed Act massively restricting immigration, the Air Commerce Act establishing regulations for air traffic, the 1927 River and Harbor Act launching the Army Corps of Engineers on their large-scale waterway-development mission, the 1927 Radio Act increasing the federal government’s powers to regulate radio communication, the McFadden Act awarding perpetual charters to the Federal Reserve District Banks, and a host of others.

“Governs least”, my ass.

It’s probably not likely as capitalist systems need regulations as part of efficiency.

Hoover was in office less than a year when the market crashed. You can blame Coolidge for that. What you can blame Hoover for was his ineffectual efforts to do something about the Depression, efforts which showed lack of concern for the average person, efforts which made things worse.

It is essentially impossible to relate historical governments to current ones in terms of how much they “govern.” Expectations change, technology changes and society changes. Most of all, countries grow, and government does not scale linearly with population.

Speaking as an Australian, I must admit to being quite puzzled by being lumped into a low government category. I really can’t imagine how anyone might get this impression.

But government and quantity thereof is something for which I can’t think of any reasonable metric one might agree upon.

Most people regard too much government as perception of government overreach into their lives. To a very large extent the main symptom is people complaining that the government has stopped them from doing something that would make them more money. Too much government becomes code for government that does not allow unfettered business. Small businesses complain especially so.
"What do you mean I:

  • “can’t sack this guy because he is” gay/black/white/atheist/Christian/Muslim/ugly
  • “have to pay accident/disability insurance for my employees”
  • “have to pay into a pension fund for my employees”
  • “can’t take money out of the pension for myself”
  • “have to tell the shareholders the truth”

For the little guy, too much government becomes code for government laws or regulations that cost them money for doing something they think they should be allowed to do. I have observed that people who have just been issued a speeding ticket become very pro small government for a while.

Lack of sufficient government is code for complaining that the government does not prevent someone else from doing something you don’t like/want them to do. All they way from “They ought to do something about this” to “my large floppy holy book says that xxx is an abomination in the sight of yyy”. Governments probably don’t belong is the bedroom, but that doesn’t stop them trying.

Also small/big government has become code for low versus high taxation. Which really has nothing to do with the amount of government you are getting at all. History shows that taxes rise with governments of all colours. Conservative governments are peculiarly good at increasing taxes whilst claiming the opposite. Like all political parties, they simply shift the burden around. But governments of all flavours are addicted to the money, and the power it gives them. Taxation is really no useful proxy for size or amount of governing. You don’t need a lot of government to tax and spend lots of money.

The best government is the one that governs when needed.

The idea that less government is the best government is just the usual fallacy that in the face of perceived over government less government is good, and since less is good, even greater reduction must be better. The opposite argument also applies.

That’s a myth from the past. The US has poor social mobility compared to other developed nations, all of which provide more government services to their citizens than the US does.

The idea isn’t, or shouldn’t be, that government exercising its powers is automatically a bad thing. That’s the mistaken interpretation of the quote.

I think the maxim is meant to express a certain small-C conservative viewpoint that government power should be under fairly tight control and only used for things that are deemed necessary. And the devil is definitely in the details of what is “necessary”.

The idea is that it is right and proper for the government to do what is necessary. The question really revolves around what is necessary. Nobody would argue that a government providing services like a postal system, national defense, a legal system, and so on are unnecessary. And similarly, nobody would argue that the government needs to implement 21st century sumptuary laws either- that’s clearly outside of what we think of these days as the role of government.

The question comes in where it’s much more blurry though; is it necessary for a state government to mandate annual safety inspections of automobiles? Apparently not; both academic studies and observation show that there isn’t a big difference between states like Texas that have these inspections, and states like Iowa that don’t. And there’s likely a fair bit of evidence that the people whose cars are most likely to fail the inspections (poor people who drive beaters) just disregard the requirement in the first place.

So that would be an example of an unnecessary government regulation that probably ought to be removed, as counterintuitive as it sounds to most of us on the roads.

True… and what the OP’s quote is effectively saying is that you should append “and no more.” to it.

I would nominate Hong Kong. The British governor, John Cowperthwaite, declared a policy of ‘Laissez-Faire’ in 1961 and allowed Hong Kong to self-organize without much interference other than to maintain the peace.

The result was that it went from being a poor island full of refugees to a world economic power with a high standard of living. Not long ago, opening a business in Hong Kong required you to fill out a single piece of paper.

I think a comparison of the U.S. with Canada in the 1980’s and 1990’s is instructive. Canada had bigger government and higher taxes under the first Trudeau. We had lower labor productivity, lower GDP growth, and a lower increase in the standard of living. Per-capita GDP trailed substantially.

In that era, Canada’s unemployment rate was perpetually about 2% higher than inthe US, but we were told it was just a structural difference and not the result of policy.

After ‘austerity’ measures by two successive liberal governments, Canada lowered its government spending as a share of GDP, lowered the deficit, lowered regulations, and moved past rhe U.S. on the freedom index. The result was a pretty substantial turnround.

During the 2008 crisis, Canada adopted the least interventionist strategy and had one of the smallest ‘stimulus’ packages as a percentage of GDP - I think about half of whatnthe U.S.'s was. And we came out of the recession with one of the strongest economies.

We have a less progressive tax system, lower corporate and income tax, and we rank higher on the UN human development index. Or at least that was the case a few years ago.

On the other hand Hong Kong has incredibly strict gun control laws, so that a gun murder per year is considered a scandal. I think that counts as governing.

It doesn’t count as economic intervention, which is what matters in this discussion. As I said, Britain saw its role as keeping the peace (including British style gun regulation), but otherwise adopting a hands-off attitude.

Gee, I swear I’ve seen references to other things besides economics in this thread. And there are downsides to this also, in soaring real estate prices and income inequality.
However I suspect that you’d predict that increased Chinese government control is going to screw the place up, and I agree.

The way I read the thread, it does not limit itself to economic intervention.
(I see Voyager was quicker on the draw)

There are people here with more direct knowledge of the history of Hong Kong than just my reading of it, but as a “Crown Colony” all international business was run under a monopoly of British controlled hongs (hence, “Hong Kong”) and it was only around the time of the switch to being a British Overseas Territory that non-British were allowed to engage in large-scale business activities outside the British system. The colony built a lot of wealth in the way that imperial colonies all build wealth, i.e. by exploiting labor and resources, although Hong Kong was fortunate to not have much in the way of natural resources to extract. I suppose you can say that Britain at least didn’t strip it down for parts and burn everything else to the ground when they left, but the idea of Hong Kong being an exemplar of free capitalism is so absurdist I actually had to consider whether the statement was intended to be satire.

Of course, Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon Peninsula were occupied and later ‘granted’ in perpetuity to the Crown as a result of the Opium Wars, which of course was Great Britain’s fortune making turn in running a global illegal narcotics smuggling and sales empire. I suppose that is the ultimate laissez-faire economics if you don’t consider the use of British military force to be government intervention in service of globalized drug trade. So…there’s that.


Ronald Reagan, August 12, 1986

"The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help. "

The quote in its original form that I cited and its implicit real-world use in my entire adult life is that the government (usually applied to the federal government but often to lower levels) “should not make any rules that diminish my class or help a different class.” It is expressing exactly the same mentality that Frank Wilhoit bluntly exposed: “Conservatism consists of exactly one proposition, to wit: There must be in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect…”

This attitude goes all the way back. The late 19th century that is extolled as the apotheosis of hands-off government blatantly favored business. The Sherman Anti-Trust Act was almost never enforced, federal troops were sent in to break up strikes, the courts ruled exploitative business practices legal under contract law, and protective tariffs so favored American countries that all of Europe screamed. The government was not neutral or distant: it worked constantly to lift one side over the others.

The negative reaction to “least” government reflects that reality, not just about business but about basic rights as well, as instanced thousands of times in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Government bureaucracy should never be confused with government lawmaking though, as Francis_Vaughan stated, it often is. Just as government restriction grew out of the tremendous abuses that the public rose up against, government bureaucracy grew out of the demand by the public that government fairly applies its rules in strict ways because of their experience with people in high places slipping through vague strictures.

Both are more ideals than day-to-day reality, to be sure. The rich do get richer and so do their lawyers. The poor are subject to rules that cost money to adhere to. That’s a societal problem more than a governmental one. The government is only responsible for the plight of the poor because of the many cases in which the rules and regulations were written specifically to favor the upper classes. That may be an argument for less government but I’ll be many decades dead before I hear a conservative making that case.