Quotes Uncovered: Who Wanted the Least Government?

Quotes Uncovered

75 ThumbnailHere are more quote authors and origins Shapiro’s tracked down recently.

Ten weeks ago, I invited readers to submit quotations for which they wanted me to try to trace the origins, using The Yale Book of Quotations and more recent research by me. Scores of people have responded via comments or e-mails. I am responding as best I can, a couple per week.

James asked:

I’d like to know who originally said, “That government is best which governs least.” When trying to find the origin, I’ve run across John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Paine. Who actually said this?

John L. O’Sullivan, the journalist and diplomat who also coined the phrase “manifest destiny,” is quoted by The Yale Book of Quotations as writing “The best government is that which governs least” in the United States Magazine and Democratic Review, October 1, 1837. Earlier, Jonathan Shipley wrote in 1773 that “The true art of government consist in not governing too much.”

fretal asked:

I would love to know the original source of this one: “A mathematician is a device for turning coffee into theorems.” I’ve seen it attributed most often to Paul Erdös or Alfred Renyi, [and] occasionally to other famous mathematicians/scientists.

The Yale Book of Quotations has the following:

“A mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems.” Paul Erdös, Quoted in Atlantic, November 1987. Sometimes credited to other mathematicians before Erdös, such as Paul Turan or Alfred Renyi.

Do any readers have any other quotations whose origins they would like me to attempt to trace?

Sean Samis

Very long ago, when I was in the Navy, I ran across something I was told was "Clark's Law". It goes like this:

In the adoption of any new Idea there are three steps:
1. Someone invents/discovers the new idea
2. Someone makes the new idea widely know.
3. You wait for all the old men to die.

I thought this was from Arthur C. Clarke, but I cannot find it anywhere in his writing. Any Idea where it came from?


"If a man is not a socialist by the time he is 20, he has no heart.
If he is not a conservative by the time he is 40, he has no brain."

I have seen this quote and variants attributed to Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, Otto Van Bismarck and Benjamin Disraeli, among others.

Bruce Pileggi

Who said: "If there's a right way and a wrong way to do something, you'll do it the wrong way first."


"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." This has been attributed to Frank Zappa, Elvis Costello, and many other musicians.


Regarding the quote equating the least government with the best, in his essay "The End of Laissez-Faire," Keynes cites the Marquis d'Argenson as the originator, as well as the popularizer of the phrase "laissez-faire" in its modern economic sense.

Keynes claims the latter first appeared in the 1751 work "Journal Economique," The footnote is unclear as to whether this is also the source of the quote "Pour gouverner mieux, il faudrait gourverner moins," but since the Marquis died in 1758, if we are to believe Keynes's claim, he must have coined it before any of the candidates suggested by the Yale Book of Quotations, since they were not yet born.


Why do people keep asking about quotes which they could easily find at the local library or bookstore in The Yale Book of Quotations?


I'm very curious about this one:

"I am a most unhappy man. I have unwittingly ruined my country. A great industrial nation is controlled by its system of credit. Our system of credit is concentrated. The growth of the nation, therefore, and all our activities are in the hands of a few men. We have come to be one of the worst ruled, one of the most completely controlled and dominated Governments in the civilized world no longer a Government by free opinion, no longer a Government by conviction and the vote of the majority, but a Government by the opinion and duress of a small group of dominant men." -Woodrow Wilson, after signing the Federal Reserve into existence.

This quote is used by all kinds of anti-fiat-currency and anti-Federal Reserve texts but it is disputed:


Can you clear up any history around this quote from Wilson (who signed the Federal Reserve Act into law)?



This quote is often attributed to Albert Einstein:

"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."

But a number of other sources say that it was on a sign hung either on Albert Einstein's office door or in his office at Princeton and that the origin is unknown.


Who first said "A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man"?


I'm thought it came from Physiocracy in the 17th Century. Perhaps Quesnay or Turgot.


“The best government is that which governs least” is in the "Tao Te King" writen by Lao Tzu about 500 years before Christ.


And, by the way, the philosophy of Lao Tzu has little in common with laissez-faire, although Hayek and some other Austrian economist like to think so.

AJ Venter

@Sean Sammis: I don't know that quote, but I do know it's not Clarke's law. Clarke's law (which really was written by Arthur C. Clarke) reads that:
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

It has sparked many corollaries such as "any technology that is distinguishable from magic is insufficiently advanced" and "any sufficiently advanced technologist is indistinguishable from a magician".

One of my favorite quotes I would love to know the true source off. It is usually attributed to George Washington, Benjamin Franklin or occasionally to Thomas Jefferson and reads: "A nation that would trade freedom for a little temporary security will lose both and deserve neither"

steve long

"Trust everybody. But cut the cards."



“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”

I believe was originally quoted from Martin Mull


"The grass is always greener on the other side"

"If you're young and a republican you have no heart. If you're old and a democrat you have no brain"


Who said "Write a witty saying and your name will live forever?" I can only find it attributed to "Anonymous"



Hi Fred,
We in India often attribute the quote "Statistics are like bikinis (Mini skirts). What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital" to a certain outspoken crickter called Navjyot singh Siddhu, who is very (in)famous for his sidhuism ( http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Navjot_Singh_Sidhu) . However I am pretty sure this was originally quoted by some economists/statistician. Can you (sic) reveal :)


Actually I'm pretty sure what Lao Tzu said about government was: "Governing a large country is like frying a small fish. You spoil it with too much poking." What I'm surprised by is that he has another fantastic libertarianish quote which I haven't seen before: "The more laws and order are made prominent, the more thieves and robbers there will be."


How about the quote(& accompanying story) "It's turtle's all the way down;" wikipedia has an entry but it's far from helpful: