Inexpedient Government

If “that government is best which governs least,” the absence of transparency on the part of officials is the best clue that the government needs to be slapped down.



Government is inexpedient, but since we are far from prepared to manage without it, let’s try to direct its awesome power at the target of achieving the common good.

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. 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 they will have. Government is at best but an expedient; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient.  [“True Conservatism” in Historical and Literary Lessons 5/20/12.]

Thoreau merits careful consideration: we can agree with him that were we wise enough to conserve our values through our joint actions day by day, then perhaps small government would be best. Until that nirvana on earth be attained by society, however, Thoreau’s counsel is best accepted as true only in theory. In practice, a wiser rendition would be, “That government is best which governs to the minimum required for the common good.”


Problems, of course, rear their ugly heads before the words leave my fingertips. Given a government so powerful that it can defeat an enemy intent on conquest, how can we prevent the officials of such government from intimidating us as individual citizens? Given a government so powerful that it can break up a financial monstrosity that manipulates trillions of dollars in secret bets, how can we prevent the officials of that government from accepting a few billion in spare change in return for pretending they cannot see the monster?

Thanks to Juan Cole, Informed Comment. 

Transparency.    Politicians have a pretty good idea whether or not what they are doing is appropriate: if they have expertise in nothing else, politicians certainly have expertise in detecting opportunities to conduct the public business for their personal advantage. When an official hides information, it is almost never for national security reasons, almost always to conceal behavior that the official knows full well was inappropriate. In a democracy, the public interest is rarely served by concealing the behavior or true reasons behind the behavior of officials. There are of course exceptions, perhaps the main one being a situation where a weak state under the threat of attack defends itself by pretending to be more powerful than it is. For a secure state, however, “national security” is a claim designed to protect the guilty far more often than to protect the public. Lack of transparency by officials constitutes prima fascie evidence of guilt and serves as society’s alarm bell.

Government has justification for existing to the degree that it functions on behalf of society and with the permission of society. It is just so much nonsense to accuse the government of “being too big” or “interfering too much” without finishing the thought. If the government overwhelms healthy social activities, it is too big; if it fails to regulate socially harmful private interests, it is too small. The self-serving nature of many complaints accusing government of being “too big” would be quickly revealed if the critics were forced to complete their thoughts. 


Wall St. CEO: “Government is too big; it is preventing me from making billions without paying any taxes!”

Big Oil Executive: “Government is too big; it is preventing me from poisoning the air I don’t own to pad my pocket!”

Racist: “Government is too big; it is subsidizing the education of minorities!”

Rich man: “Government is too big; it is offering health care to sick people who aren’t even rich!”



We may agree with Thoreau that in principle, small government or no government would be best…once humans are ready for such liberty. In the meantime, what matters is not size but quality, and transparency is the essence of good governance.  It is not the size of the government but its transparency that indicates the citizenry needs to take disciplinary action.


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