Why does Thoreau say that the best kind of government is one that "gets out of its own way"?

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David Morrison eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Thoreau believes that the best kind of government is one that governs not at all. Governments, like all human institutions, are, of their very nature, corrupt. Though governments are established on the basis of the will of the people, once they're up and running, they tend to become separate from the very people who founded them. Then governments take on a life—and will—of their own, which further alienates them from the people they are supposed to serve.

If governments are to reflect the people's will once more, they need to "get out of their own way." In other words, they need to reestablish a connection with the people—the only legitimate source of governmental authority. This means that government should only govern when absolutely necessary, leaving each individual free to make his or her own decisions in life.

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mwestwood eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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These words from Resistance to Civil Goverment are reinforcement of the words of Thomas Jefferson, who declared, "That government is best which governs least."  In a free society, if men accept responsiblity for their lives, there is little need for big government which hinders human progress. As Thoreau writes, the American people have prospered because they have achieved on their own:

The character inherent in the American people has done all that has been accomplished; and it would have done somewhat more if the government had not sometimes got in its way.

 A government that is too large and too powerful, Thoreau points out, is susceptible to corruption, as it is

equally liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it.

Thoreau uses the Mexican War as an example, contending that the people would not have consented to this war if they had been allowed their voice.  Instead, the war became the "work of comparatively a few individuals using the standing government as their tool."

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