Is government best which governs least?

“I hope this guy with a THAT GOVERNMENT IS BEST WHICH GOVERNS LEAST bumper sticker achieves his dream of moving to Somalia someday.” – Ken Jennings

Minimalism as a management principle

Most people seem to understand and agree with the idea that management is best that manages least. The people working for me certainly did. Where possible, a manager should create an environment where individuals manage themselves, acting with responsibility, creativity, initiative, camaraderie, and self-restraint, to best achieve the company’s goals. It’s a style and philosophy of management that takes “First, do no harm” as its first rule, striving first not to suck out people’s natural creativity and desire to succeed with others. It doesn’t end there, but it starts there.

There’s plenty of evidence supporting the idea. A study by Nielsen Co. found that

“Companies with less senior-management involvement in the new-product process generate 80% more revenue from new products than those with the highest levels of senior-management involvement.”

Thoreau, Gandhi, and King

So I appreciate the opening line of Henry David Thoreau’s classic On Civil Disobedience.

“I heartily accept the motto, “That government is best which governs least”; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically.”

Thoreau was writing in 1848. He argued that paying taxes to the government would make him complicit in the institution of slavery and in the Mexican War. He chose instead to sit in jail. Leading liberals of generations past found inspiration from Thoreau.

Mahatma Gandhi wrote that

“Thoreau was a great writer, philosopher, poet … He was one of the greatest and most moral men America has produced. At the time of the abolition of slavery movement, he wrote his famous essay “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience”. .. it is written for all time. Its incisive logic is unanswerable.”

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote

“No other person has been more eloquent and passionate in getting this idea across than Henry David Thoreau. As a result of his writings and personal witness, we are the heirs of a legacy of creative protest. The teachings of Thoreau came alive in our civil rights movement; indeed, they are more alive than ever before. Whether expressed in a sit-in at lunch counters, a freedom ride into Mississippi, a peaceful protest in Albany, Georgia, a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, these are outgrowths of Thoreau’s insistence that evil must be resisted and that no moral man can patiently adjust to injustice.”

Reverend King found in Thoreau’s thesis the inspiration and philosophic underpinnings of the civil rights movement. Gandhi found the logic incisive and unanswerable.  Ken Jennings found it worthy of mocking contempt.

Government immorality and incompetence

Thoreau’s objections to government were not only to its immorality, but also to its incompetence.

 “Yet this government never of itself furthered any enterprise, but by the alacrity with which it got out of its way. It does not keep the country free. It does not settle the West. It does not educate. The character inherent in the American people has done all that has been accomplished; and it would have done somewhat more, if the government had not sometimes got in its way. … if one were to judge these men [politicians and bureaucrats] wholly by the effects of their actions and not partly by their intentions, they would deserve to be classed and punished with those mischievous persons who put obstructions on the railroads.”

Somehow liberals moved from an embrace of Thoreau to you didn’t build that, government is the only thing we all belong to, and we have to break through our kind of private idea that kids belong to their parents … and recognize that kids belong to whole communities.

Thoreau hoped the world was progressing towards increasingly limited governments.

“The progress from an absolute to a limited monarchy from a limited monarchy to a democracy, is a progress toward a true respect for the individual.”

And he understood the implications of his statement

“Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe — ‘That government is best which governs not at all’; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which we will have.”

In other words, we need government today, but Thoreau hopes to progress to a point where individuals govern themselves sufficiently to make government unnecessary.

For now, Thoreau wrote

“I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government.”


Since Jennings brings up Somalia as a counter-example to a desire for limited government, how is the Somalian government doing?

Here’s a recent piece from the New York Times:

The Somali government, in a move that has outraged human rights groups, has charged a woman who said she was gang-raped by soldiers with making a false accusation and having “insulted and lowered the dignity of a National Institution,” crimes that could mean many years in prison.

The woman’s husband has also been jailed — essentially for backing up his wife’s allegations — and so has a Somali journalist who interviewed the woman, even though he never published any information.

So the few services that the Somalian government provides include gang rape and imprisonment of the victim and her supporters. Somalia is an indication of why we should fear both the presence of government and its absence.

Partial truths

I’m not being fair to Jennings. His pithy Tweet, like the bumper sticker he mocked, can hardly be expected to do much more than provide a partial truth. And the full truth is that with so much evil still in the world, even libertarians agree that we need government to help us defend our lives, liberty, and property. Preferably, with minimal infringement on said life, liberty and property. And without forgetting that government is often a force of evil, and that it often increases poverty, corruption, and inequality.

Respect for Thoreau

I should admit that I don’t accept some of Thoreau’s libertarian premises. My views are closer to Teddy Roosevelt’s Citizenship in a Republic and to Mike Lee’s recent What Conservatives are For. I think there are conditions under which government should confiscate property and infringe on liberties in order to serve some greater good. But with extreme caution and with a great commitment to the principle of first do no harm.

The voice of Thoreau should forever echo in the ears of every politician and bureaucrat. Government is often a force of corruption, inefficiency, and evil. We’d be safer and better off in a society that contemplates Thoreau’s words than in a society that mocks them.

About the Author
Gil Reich is the author of If You Write My Story, which helps kids deal with life, love, and loss. He is also co-founder of internet marketing and development company Managing Greatness. Previously Gil was VP of Product Management at He has been a popular speaker at internet marketing conferences around the world.