August 11, 2011 —
First, let’s check our quiz answers from last month, shall we?
Here’s the actual quote from President George H. W. Bush, from his State of the Union Address for 1992: “The opponents of this measure [cutting the capital gains tax] and those who’ve authored various so-called soak-the-rich bills that are floating around this chamber should be reminded of something: When they aim at the big guy, they usually hit the little guy. And maybe it’s time that stopped.”
(Does George give away the game here? He seems to be admitting that the “big guys” hide behind the “little guys.” But that’s something for another column.)
I made up the “Rousseau” and “Will Rogers” quotes myself. (Did you like them? Did you believe them, or at least think they were plausible?) But anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist really did say this: “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”
(If that makes you think of Michael Douglas dunking Glenn Close in “Fatal Attraction,” I think that is exactly the image Grover had in mind. But that is also something for another column.)
By the way, I don’t want to seem to be picking on conservatives here. There are probably more than a few spurious quotes floating around that serve liberal narratives as well. (If you know any, send them to me.) However, I do think that conservatives give greater weight and credence to historical “authority” than liberals, and this may lead them to be more susceptible to believing, and therefore passing along, this sort of quotation.
Anyway: I have to admit, I brought up this whole subject of spurious quotes just because this one bugs me so much:
“That government is best that governs least.”
This quote, a great favorite of modern conservatives and libertarians, is sometimes attributed to Thomas Jefferson, sometimes Thomas Paine. But it actually enters the literature in the writings of Henry David Thoreau (of all people) in his essay “On Civil Disobedience”—and it wasn’t even original with him. The original was the motto of a journal called “The United States Magazine and Democratic Review,” edited by one John O’Sullivan. (See facweb.furman.edu/~benson/docs/demrev.htm for the full text of O’Sullivan’s manifesto, which puts this sentiment in context.)
The appeal of this quote is obvious. It’s facile, and catchy. It seems to justify the Republicans’ present attempts to dismantle all the regulatory apparatus that keep the market from consuming everything in sight. But it’s also paradoxical—would we say, “That police department is best that polices least?” “That nurse is best that nurses least?” “That teacher is best that teaches least?” “Those prisons are best that imprison the least?” “That army is best that fights the least?”(Hmm… I may have to think about the implications of that last one a bit.)
Let me offer what seems to me a more accurate alternative. Feel free to pass it along—who knows, maybe at some point it’ll be accepted as part of the historical canon as well…
“That nation is best, which is least in need of governance.”
No, wait—that’s not really enough, is it? We need a larger context. I’ll even couch it in antiqued language, to give it a bit more cachet.
“Therefore, let us not say ‘That government is best that governs least’—for would that not be the fondest wish of the brigand and the highwayman, that government itself should dissolve, and the rule of law disappear? Rather, let us declare that nation the best, which is least in need of governance.”
Ascribe this to “Anonymous,” if you like. Or maybe Ben Franklin.
P.S. When looking into the past, it can be hard to sort out truth from fantasy. Fortunately, some folks have devoted themselves to unraveling such historical conundrums. Besides the ever-useful www.snopes.com , you can also check sites like the following: quoteinvestiga tor.com, en.wikiquote.org/wiki/List_of_misquotations, www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/spurious-quotes  (specifically about spurious Thomas Jefferson quotes), and see books like Paul Boller and John George’s compendium, “They Never Said It: A Book of Fake Quotes, Misquotes, and Misleading Attributions” (Oxord University Press, 1990).