Explain the paradox that is involved in the expression “that government is best which governs least”.


What is the writer’s philosophy contained in his Statement “that government is best which governs least”?


Do you agree with the author where he says “that government is best which governs not at all”?

josBd (2)Answer: In order to answer this question it is necessary to explain what is meant by paradox. A paradox is a rhetorical figure which has been defined by Martin in the following terms,

“A paradox is an apparent contradiction. At first reading it may seem absurd or impossible, but on examination it is found to express in a memorable way a truth.” A paradox runs counter to a prevalent opinion, and it may or may not contain a truth. For example, Shakespeare’s well-known sentence, “Sweet are the uses of adversity” is a paradoxical statement. The prevalent opinion about adversity is that it brings sufferings, so normally it is not sweet, but on a deeper thought we realize that there are some sweetness’s in it; people come closer through mutual adversities; their love and affection become more intense and more sincere etc. So, a paradox is an apparently self-contradictory statement, but it is essentially true. It is a common rhetorical device in epigrammatic writing.

The statement, “that government is best which governs least”, or carried to its logical limit, “that government is best which governs not at all”, seems apparently paradoxical. The paradox between governing and not governing indeed poses a problem. But the writer has stated the main theme of his famous essay, Civil Disobedience through the paradoxical 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 they will have.”


His main theme is the absolute freedom of the citizen of a State and the unjust law of the state which opposes such individual freedom to an absolute degree. This statement contains a truth about political democracy of a state, as all paradoxes contain some truths behind their apparent contradiction. The writer is a proponent of absolute personal freedom which should be, according to him, the basis of an ideal form of democracy. If the state allows personal freedom to a maximum, the government will not interfere with many individual citizens’ activities, so long as those activities do not clash with the interest of other individual members of a society. If the state of things as regards the individual’s free activities, and the government’s not interfering with them goes so far, then it will be an ideal democratic state in which practically the government will not need to govern. In such a state of government, there will practically be no need for governing the citizens, for every individual will act according to his freedom and conscience. So the meaning of the paradoxical statement that the government is best which does not govern at all comes to be resolved.

In Thoreau’s opinion, the American government is but a tradition. It endeavors to transmit itself to posterity unimpaired. But it is losing some of its integrity every moment. It should have the vitality of a single living man, the force of an individual, who can bend such vitality and force according to his will. But the American government does not have the force and vitality. Government is at best an expedient, but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient. There have been brought many weighty and serious arguments against a standing army, and the same argument may be brought against the government. The government itself, which is only a mode by which the people have chosen to execute their will, is liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it. The Mexican war is an instance. It is the work of a comparatively few people using the standing government as their tool. The people would not have consented to this measure in the outset. The American government does not keep the country free. It does not settle the West. It does not educate.


Thoreau has given his idea about what an ideal government should be like, after criticizing the American government. To Thoreau, the perfect type of government should be one in which people would be able to enjoy their absolute freedom without any interference on the part of the government. Rather, the government should be an organ through which each individual will get his hopes and aspirations realized. Such a government will act on behalf of each individual in the State. Each individual’s words and deeds would be expressed through such a government. An ideal form of government should be an expedient to a maximum; it should allow individuals to have maximum freedom, freedom of will and of actions. It should interfere least with the thoughts and actions of an individual. There should be at once a better government than what exists at the moment. That government should be the most expedient one which will allow maximum freedom to individuals, and will refrain from interference with any individual.

Worthy people should come to rule the democratic state, and conscience should be the basis for the rules of the state. If the government of a state is guided by conscience, and if each individual is also saturated with conscience, the state need not govern at all. If every individual citizen of a state becomes such a one, the state will have no need to govern the people. This is actually the conception of the limited government, that is, government having limited power over its people.

If I am asked to express my agreement or disagreement with the author’s contention that government is best which does not govern at all, I would give the following opinion. A paradox may or may not contain a truth; though Thoreau’s statement involves a paradox it does not contain absolute truth, for it is not consistent with human nature. Normally, a man is more prone to good, and if he is not controlled by some power higher than himself, he indulges in more and more evil. So the people, who are not governed by a conscientious government, are apt to go more and more depraved in their thoughts and deeds. We can, therefore, deduce from these arguments that that government is best which governs with the greatest amount of justice to the people, and not the other way round.