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July 9th, 2012

Misquote of the day.

" Any government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have.” - Gerald R. Ford, in his first address to Congress, five days after Nixon's resignation.

Since this sentiment is floating around right-wing fandom, even among people who attribute it correctly (the less literate ascribe this blatantly twentieth-century prose to Jefferson), it may be worth discussing it.

Ford understated the case immensely; it would be closer to the truth to say: Any government is big enough to take from you everything you have. It suffices that government be able to collect revenues and raise a standing army; and Henry VIII had no problem taking everything from the richest bodies in England with an even smaller government. Weak governments have no difficulty being tyrannical; they may be more likely to be, as the only way to get anything done at all.

In our American politics, that would mean that the Federal Government has been big enough to do so since the Washington Administration. President Washington led the largest army of his career to impose a ruinous tax on Pennsylvania in 1794; President Jefferson ruined large sections of the country in 1807.

Why then do we have anything left? Because the Constitution, for all its flaws, does do two things well enough, so far: we do sometimes elect politicians of humanity and virtue; when Washington got to Pennsylvania, he was clement enough to shoot nobody (against the advice of the Cabinet) and he reconsidered the tax once Federal authority had been established.

Again, the Constitution sets the ambition of every politician to correcting the errors even of wise and humane politicians: Jefferson's policy was resoundingly unpopular; Congressmen, even the members of his own party who had passed it, found that their future required they repeal it again. (Jefferson collapsed into depression, and did hardly anything the last three months of his Presidency, but his Congress, and his chosen successor as President, were both elected.)