It’s always the dots that get you, isn’t it? What was there, you wonder? That’s where we are going. Please be patient.
You have often heard the half-maxim  “That government is best that governs least.” I have seen it attributed to Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and Henry Thoreau. Apart from considerations of what you might want the government to do, of course, it is ridiculous to say how much of it you want. In the contemporary ideological wars, it is usually enough to say “Less.” That’s how much government I want, one says: I want less.
I would like to consider this half-maxim from several beginning points today. Some are political, but most are not. I want to start our consideration of the best ways to use this word by considering the word itself and possibly a little bit about what it means to say that a word can be used in these ways but not those ways.
Let’s start off with the politics. Sometime during the time I was teaching politics of various kinds at Portland State University, there arose an interest in putting a limit on the number of terms a legislator could serve.  “Why do you want to do that?” I would ask the students who were advocating it. Well, they said, we want to reduce the power they wield in the legislature. Really, I said, and who do you want to have that power instead of them? Ordinarily, that caused a brief pause in the conversation.
Here’s what I had in mind. 100% of the available power in a legislative setting will be exercised. You don’t put it in the bank for the next session. That raises the question, who will get more power as the representatives get less? The caucus leaders, certainly. The best-funded lobbyists. The legislative staff, e.g. the Legislative Counsel’s Office. Statewide elected officials, like the Attorney General and the Secretary of State will exercise more power. Usually, it was the prospect that legislative aides and lobbyists would be empowered that caused my students’ early enthusiasm to begin to wane.
But the real issue is the confusion of governance with government. Every system is governed. Governance is a function; “government” is better thought of as a means. It would better be thought of as a synonym. “The governance (government) of the system is decentralized” for instance.
It is easy to see that “government” can be treated as a name for all the guidance functions a system uses. That fits very well with the etymology, especially when we stop to consider that government and cybernetics derive from the same root. It is the Greek (later Latin) kybernatos, meaning “pilot” in the nautical sense. The pilot (governance function) steers the ship (social unit) where it ought to go requiring no more resources than are available. What cybernetics has in common with government (considered as a function) is the feedback loop This is the problem my students stumbled on. There is always going to be “government” in the legislative setting. It will always add to 100%. You can divide the sources of government so that these have more influence and those less, but you cannot simply reduce the power of one group. It’s like taking a handful of water out of a lake.
This is not to say that every kind of governance is as good or bad as every other kind. We may well have preferences for one kind. Imagine, starting at the individual units, a person who is self-governed and requires no social guidance at all. Now imagine that she has flaws in her governance system and the social system needs to step in from time to time to “guide” her actions. So far so good. But imagine now that the society has inadequate resources to deal with her behavioral aberrations, and the formal structural power—often called “government” where that word is thought of as a means of governance, not as synonymous with it—is called in to add resources.
People who think of “government” as office holders and regulations and votes will say that there was no government in the first two settings and that it was introduced in the third. But if you think of government as a function, there is as much government in the first two scenarios as there is in the third. All the government is self-government in the first. All the government is self-government and where that fails, social government, in the second. All the government is self-government in the third, except where that fails and social government is brought in, and also except for where social government also fails and structures wielding formal coercive power are brought in.
Think of it this way. If self-government is represented by A, then in the first scenario A = 100%. If societal government is represented by B, then in the second scenario A + B = 100%. If political government is represented by C, then in the third scenario, then A + B + C = 100%. If we understand it this way, then asking for “less government” (governance) is just silly.
Let me illustrate with a scene from George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides. Nearly everyone in the world dies in the first few pages. “Ordinary society” doesn’t outlive the first generation in the small societies that remain. Government is by consensus. But then into one of these societies, a bad person comes. He chooses a mentally deficient girl as his prey and proposes to marry and have mentally deficient children by her. The elders come by and explain how bad that would be and forbid him to do it.
This bad person has broken the contract of self government. A is gone. The visit of the elders, explaining to him that he ought not to do what he is planning also fails. A and B are now both gone. So the village elders constitute themselves as a government. They agree—I think there might even be a vote—that they are the legitimate government of this little group. They formally accuse the bad person, they try him and find him guilty, and they pronounce his sentence and hang him. A + B + C. This is not murder. They consider murdering him, but they don’t want to introduce lawlessness, so they make laws and, according to those laws, “execute” him.
If you consider “government as a function,” the amount of governing being done or being expected is 100% at each round. It’s all self government, then it adds social government and finally adds political government.
Let’s go back now to the quotation with which we began and fill in the ellipsis. “That government is best which governs least, because its people discipline themselves.” If we can refer back to the A + B + C model, we can see this sentiment an advocacy of individual self-management and the “least government” is the kind called in least often to deal with disagreements. This raises some obvious questions. Here are two.
- What would an advocate of this “least government” say about what to do when people do not, in fact, discipline themselves?
- What would an advocate of this “least government” say about functions of government other than maintaining order, say, the funding of internal economic improvements, such as railroads and canal systems?
I myself would prefer a great deal of government in some ways. It will be required, certainly, if any headway is to be made in reducing global warming. Social sentiments against the activities that promote global warming have been very slow to develop and have very little effect against the corporations that produce those effects. If A + B + C is the model, this crucial achievement is going to be all C.
In the U. S., the national government commonly funds projects so long as they cost more to develop and operate than they make. When they have a hope of profit, the government turns them over to private companies. Transportation to and from the International Space Station is an example. The development and distribution of solar power is just about to become an example. In the performance of crucial tasks that only governments can do, I would prefer to have “a lot of government,” i,.e. enough to do the jobs I want to see done. It is easier, from this perspective to see why I took the trouble to point out that it was ridiculous to say the we have too much or not enough without bothering to say what we want to use it for.
So far as the use of government to settle disputes, I feel more the way Thoreau (or Lincoln, or Jefferson) did. I feel the same way about the officiating of NFL games. I want the refs to be competent and well-paid, but a game in which only a few plays were stopped by penalties would be a better game. In society, the more self-discipline each person has, the less often social and political muscle is going to have to be brought in.
In societies that emphasize the power of social institutions, the power of social norms to clarify conflicts and in many cases, to resolve them, is much prized. In the U.S., we have allowed such institutions to wither.  In the symbolic representation I used earlier, that removes B from the A + B + C palette, so conflicts in A move rapidly to C. Individual disputes, are more and more mediated by political agencies, in other words, which are often not well-equipped to deal with them. If I saw a lot of that, I might very well argue that “that government is best that governs least,” meaning that I want less regulation of interpersonal behavior. But if I were to say that very often, it would bring me to lamenting, instead, the lack of self discipline or the atrophy of mediating institutions that requires that much government. Arguing against the constraints of government in this situation is like arguing against the constraints of a tourniquet. It brings you to wondering what the tourniquet if for.
That tourniquet is best that constrains least? No, that just doesn’t have what I was looking for.
1] Would that make it a “minim?”
 Peter Courtney, who was a young member of the House of Representatives in Salem when I sat on the House floor as a Legislative Assistant in 1983 is still there; as President, now, of the Oregon Senate.
 Wikipedia: “Cybernetics is applicable when a system being analyzed incorporates a closed signaling loop—originally referred to as a “circular causal” relationship—that is, where action by the system generates some change in its environment and that change is reflected in the system in some manner (feedback) that triggers a system change”
 In his Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam lamented the demise of those informal institutions that produced what he called “social capital” and on which we all drew.
Nice piece. Thanks.