Sunday, September 2, 2012
Here's a quote I'll bet you've heard:
"That government is best which governs least."
It's the philosophy our nation's founding fathers had. Or is it?
The quote is usually attributed to Thomas Jefferson. But no specific source document can be found where he is shown to have said it. Nor can any record be found where Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, or anyone else said it. In fact, the phrase seems to have originated 50 years after the United States came into existence. If you want the details about it, I recommend you read the book, Not So!: Popular Myths About America From Columbus to Clinton by Paul F. Boller.
In fact, the phrase first originated from a journalist named John Louis O'Sullivan. In 1837, he wrote, "The best government is that which governs least," and used it as the official motto of his periodical, The United States Magazine and Democratic Review. Every issue of that magazine had that phrase printed on its cover until it ceased publication in 1859. This, not the founding fathers, is where the phrase actually came from.
It received further popularity when Ralph Waldo Emerson used it in his 1844 essay, Politics. He wrote, "The less government we have, the better." Emerson's friend and ideological disciple, Henry David Thoreau, finally wrote the phrase in its final form in his landmark 1849 essay, Civil Disobedience. He wrote, "I heartily accept the motto, -- 'That government is best which governs least.'"
Unfortunately, this phrase has a fatal flaw, because, if taken to its logical conclusion, the best government is the one which does not govern at all! Interestingly, that's exactly what Thoreau went on to argue in his essay! Not even the most extremist of Republicans preaching less government will dare advocate that!
Now, I like Thoreau. His book, Walden, enthralled me when I was in high school. But he was only human, after all. Perhaps, in an age where the most advanced weapon was a musket, that sort of system could work. In today's world, where everything is wired for video and weapons are easily obtained, the least possible amount of government is a sure-fire recipe for disaster!
I am not the first to argue this. Franklin Delano Roosevelt argued it following the Great Depression. In a speech given on Halloween night, 1936, he said, "For twelve years this nation was afflicted with hear-nothing, see-nothing, do-nothing Government... Powerful influences strive today to restore that kind of government with its doctrine: 'That government is best which is most indifferent.'"
So the question must be rephrased: How much government is too much? In order to maintain the maximum amount of prosperity for all, it is certainly necessary to regulate things like banking, corporations, stock exchanges, international trade, and natural resources like fishing and logging. It is also necessary to provide support systems for citizens whose livelihoods are subject to environmental whims, such as farming, or for upgrading the labor force to be able to compete with growing technology, such as welfare and education. These, of course, are "entitlements," as they are often called, and some are in favor of slashing such spending. But this cannot be done without severe damage being done to a nation's economy. So what can be done?
What nearly all democratic nations do is apply a progressive income tax system, where the rich pay more, and the poor pay less, or none at all. Is this fair? Does it punish success? Is this, finally, too much government?
I argue no. Why? Because for every successful businessman, there are at least a hundred others who worked just as hard, and just as smart, but were not as lucky. Yes, successful tycoons such as Mitt Romney and Ron Johnson did work hard and earned their keep, but they were also fortunate. This is the difference between billionaire and pauper: one lucky break. And this is why taxing the successful more makes so much sense. It offsets the "luck factor." It's not punishing success. It is the mandatory thanks offering to the goddess of luck. It is acknowledging that their success was due as much to privilege as to performance.
So, with all that in mind, I am now ready to re-phrase this popular expression. Here goes:
"That government is best which lets its citizens live the most."
In other words, government has an obligation to butt out of its citizens' personal choices, but has an equally strong obligation to ensure maximum opportunity for all. No one is to be left without a fair chance. And if one person's chances make that person successful, if America has been good to him/her, then he/she is required to be good right back in the form of a fair tax rate. This, in turn, gets used to ensure other people have the same chance at success, thus creating a positive feedback loop where the maximum number can prosper.
I'm also not the first to attempt a re-phrase. Robert M. Hutchins (1899 - 1977) who was Dean of Yale Law School, rephrased it this way:
"That government is best which governs best."
It's a good idea, neither Democratic nor Republican.
But for whatever reason, it's currently against GOP policy.