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Qin Hui Small Government, Big Society? What Role for the State in the Chinese Transition Process? An American scholar asked confusedly: In China today, who on earth is holding sway, the left or the right? I answered him: In light of your criteria, neither. Because leftists will make detailed inquiries about the responsibili­ ties of the rulers; and rightists will try to restrict the power of the rulers. Both of them as such are suppressed in China. However, the rulers help sustain their own leftists and rightists, for they need the “leftists” to expand their ruling power and the “rightists” to shift their responsibilities. Therefore, it may very well be said that both the leftists and the rightists are holding sway today in China. — Notes by the author ON THE ORIGIN OF “THE BEST GOVERNMENT” AND THE JEFFERSON-MASON CONSENSUS THE ADAGE “THAT GO VERN M EN T IS BEST W H IC H GOVERNS LEAST” HAS been regarded as the classic expression of such concepts as “small government, big society” and “the night-watchman state,” among others, of classical liberalism. But so far intellectual history has never solved the question of who the author of this famous saying is. social research Vol 73 : No 1 : Spring 2006 29 What is known for sure is that Henry David Thoreau, a ninenteenth -century American thinker, offered a more radical statement of the same idea in his Civil Disobedience, published in 1849: “It is widely said that that government is best which governs least. Actually it can be carried out more systematically and completely—‘That government is best which governs not at all.’” From this, it is clear that the adage was already widespread in Thoreau’s age. Of all the American presidents, as far as I know, Benjamin Harrison, the twenty-third president of the United States and a Republican (in office from 1889 to 1893), was the first that is recorded and can be traced back to who explicitly declared it as the philosophy of his administration.1Of course, neither Thoreau nor Harrison was the original author of the saying. Up to the moment, it is a popular practice in the English-speaking world to attribute the saying to Thomas Jefferson, one of the found­ ing fathers of the United States of America. This is a widely held view both in academic monographs and among ordinary readers.2And this “Jeffersonian saying” has been cited even more frequently in Chinese writings. Yet it is nowhere to be found in any of the anthologies of Jefferson’s articles or his letters that are currently in existence. Neither can it be located in the ThomasJefferson Heritage Society, which special­ izes in collecting Jefferson’s writings, nor in the Thomas Jefferson elec­ tronic data bank in the Alderman Library of the University of Virginia. In 1999, Eyler Robert Coates, chairman of the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society, published an answer on the net for the large number of people who were searching for the source of this saying. Coates says in his posting that “it is almost certain” that Jefferson never said anything like that. If Jefferson had said anything to that effect, how could he have held that there was “too small” a government? Coates said he believed that, in view of the consistency ofJefferson’s thoughts, had Jefferson written a statement of “the best government,” it could only have been something like this: That government is best which does the will of the people the most.3Not much later, Coates wrote two more articles, “Spurious Jefferson Quotes” and “That Government Is Best.. which are collected in a book he edited entitled TheJeffersonian 30 social research Perspective: Commentary on Today’s Social and Political Issues Based on the Writings ofThomasJefferson. In these two articles, Coates cited a number of Jefferson’s remarks on the responsibilities of government. And in a summary, Coates said: “The saying, ‘That government is best which governs least’ puts too much emphasis on the government as institu­ tionalized power, while Jefferson’s thoughts on government were more concerned with the government as a service provider that does the will of the people. Therefore, to arbitrarily make the government ‘govern the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-768X
Print ISSN
0037-783X
Pages
pp. 29-52
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-30
Open Access
No
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