“That government is best which governs least.”
Like much of the wisdom of the Founders, the above quote sounds quaint, almost silly to 21st century ears. At first reading, Jefferson’s notion seems self-evidently true. A well behaved citizenry would need little governing. As Jefferson’s neighbor and dear friend James Madison observed, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” But, men are not angels. We build prisons not for criminals, but for us.
In our time, it has been the great project of Progressives to perfect mankind. From Woodrow Wilson, and Theodore Roosevelt, up through FDR and Barack Obama, the American people have voted for men who promised to unleash the power of the government to attempt a reshaping of man’s character. This activist vision has produced a leviathan with almost limitless power, which has managed to make Jefferson’s 200 year old observation seem charmingly naive.
The conservative idea of government is essentially government by negation. Ronald Reagan promised to get government “out of the way and off your back.” His famous line on the campaign trail was that the scariest ten words in the English language were, “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help you.” The American people responded to his words with two broad landslides. But, that was thirty years ago and very much the exception to the rule.
We have as a nation accepted the Progressive model of government. We now expect our President to do great things, our government to develop bold programs to fix this and that. We look to Washington for answers not just to the big perplexing questions that have plagued civilization for millennia, but increasingly to even the small irritants of life, resulting in a Federal government empowered to remove Snickers bars from high school vending machines.
This is all very bad news for the Republican Party, even worse news for any Libertarian impulse. With nearly 50 million of us receiving food stamps, any candidate proposing a dismantling of big government is fighting a losing battle. The battle between aggressive and limited government has been won by the Progressives. The best that the Republicans can hope for is better management.“If men were angels…” Madison was right, of course. But what happens when the men and women who run government aren’t angels either? When we gave them such power, we assumed, hoped and prayed that they would only exercise it for the public good. The corrupting tendencies of power have a long and storied history. A government granted so much of it might in the end be impossible to stop. When that day comes we will read Thomas Jefferson’s words and weep.