Dear “small government” conservatives: that Thoreau quote doesn’t mean what you think it means

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, they say. How true, how true, especially when it comes to reducing the wisdom of brilliant, complex minds to their pithiest quotes. In a recent thread on what has become of the GOP, one commenter went all-in with Henry David Thoreau’s famous (and greatly abused) edict: that government is best which governs the least. (Thoreau was actually quoting someone else, but he endorsed the idea, so let’s go with it.)

As I explained at the time, I used to be an enthusiastic young Republican and I was known to quote that line myself. Granted, I was just spouting something I’d heard others say – I hadn’t actually read Civil Disobedience. But by gods, it sounded good. It’s brief, it’s clever, it has the smell of truthiness about it and it comes with the credibility that automatically attends canonical high school reading assignments, even if we hated them at the time.

But there are a couple of problems with the quote. Let’s consider the implications of the statement as it is presented by the “small government” passionista (who, ironically enough, still hasn’t uttered a peep about the Patriot Act). It establishes (or appears to) a formulaic inverse relationship between size of government and efficacy of government. Less government is better, more government is worse. So, taken literally, that government is best which governs the least means that the ultimate government is none at all. Anarchy. Let’s have no hemming and hawing and tap-dancing here. This is what you are saying when you quote Thoreau’s famous sentence as though it were complete and self-contained.

Now, is the edict really true when expressed this way? Understand, we’re way past the reactionary, ill-informed ideology of the tenthers here. In the literal formulation that the Thoreau sentence establishes, even the most restricted mode of the US system (common defense, etc.) is worse than no government whatsoever. Do you believe this? Governments that governed the least would get rid of laws against murder. That would be less government. Same with laws against theft. Right now, the government could govern least by eliminating all regulatory agencies, including those that keep chemical companies from dumping toxic sludge directly into the drinking water supply (or, for that matter, your bathtub). If we had less government the entire Gulf of Mexico might be pure crude by now. Also, if we had the least government financial fraudsters could have accomplished 100 times more in the way of looting our economy (and your 401K) in the past few years.

It’s entirely possible that you may be that big a wackadoo. There are plenty of people loose on the streets who believe even crazier shit than this. But – and here we arrive at the critical issue – is it what Thoreau meant? Not very likely. Henry David Thoreau was one of the most intelligent, thoughtful, educated, ennobled and enlightened men of his era. He may have been an unconventional thinker at times, but he was most certainly not an irrational one. He fully understood the need for structure in a society and was more than acquainted with the mechanisms, both official and informal, by which productive order was fostered.

Thoreau no doubt longed for a better world. The 19th century had killers and rapists and grifters and hooligans aplenty and he was certainly aware of their exploits. He himself, though, was of a class – the intelligentsia (more irony, given how “small government” types tend to regard intellectual elites) – that really didn’t need as much governing as most. If everyone were like Thoreau and his running buddy Emerson, hell, you probably could have gotten away with no government at all, or damned close to it.

But everyone wasn’t like Thoreau and they still aren’t. The fact is that most people – well, many people, anyway, and certainly enough to make a vast difference in the course of society – require governing. In some cases, lots of governing. Those points in human history where societies have opted for very little government prove the point. (Think Somalia. Think about the age of the robber barons. If you’re a conservative white suburbanite or country dweller, think about those horrifying inner cities overrun with young men wearing hoodies – not much government there, huh? Think about the housing crash and the role that under-regulation played in the creation and destruction of the bubble. Think of Enron.) I’m as aware as the next guy of the stifling effect of too much bureaucracy, and surely you can likewise acknowledge the cold, hard reality of what happens when there’s no control at all of our most anti-social citizens.

Read the rest of the passage from which the famous quote has been extracted. Two things are clear. One, Thoreau sees governments as inherently corruptible and he longs for a day when they are not required. Two, he sees them as necessary for the time being. A fuller, contextualized reading of the passage would not be summarized by the famous quote that so many conservatives like to spout. Had it occurred to him how cynical some would be in misusing his words here in the Golden Age of the Soundbite he may well have written the sentence a little differently so as to make it harder to decontextualize. But Thoreau, being who he was, probably figured that good-faith readers of his work would take the time to finish the paragraph, nay, the whole essay, and that they would feel honor bound to represent his clear intent more honestly.

So let’s free ourselves from rarified, decontextualized statements of pure idealistic American Romantic philosophy and say, instead, this: that society is best where the least government is required.

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8 thoughts on “Dear “small government” conservatives: that Thoreau quote doesn’t mean what you think it means”

  1. A poor attempt at revisionism. Your straw man reductionist argument bears little resemblance to those you believe you’re refuting. You claim that those you criticize believe that Thoreau is not arguing for the smallest possible government in the absence of any other constraints, and then you ridicule the straw man you’ve built. But in reality, he is arguing for the smallest possible government needed to fulfill the duties of government as described in the constitution: “…to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

    1. I’m not sure who you’re arguing with. I KNOW what he was saying, and it isn’t a straw man when I’m directly referencing what others SAY.

      I fully agree with what Thoreau meant. But he didn’t mean what most who quote him pretend he meant.

  2. Thoreau posits that a government exists. Which one? THAT one. Then he continues, saying that such a government is best which does what? Which governs least. Nothing about the size or breadth of dutes there. I see this as a call to personal accountability, such that what governement is required can best deal effectively with those who aren’t willing, or aren’t predispositioned by their creator, to do right by the rest of us.

    If you don’t like taxes, friends, then Patriot-up. If you’re a Patriot, don’t you tax those systems which perserve this nation’s experiment with Union, Justice, Transquility, defence, Welfare, and Liberty. Oh, and the possiblities of enjoyment of such rights by our posterity, as well.

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