Those who would draw, from such quotes as this, only that America’s founders believed in a small government have overlooked reality, and then pasted their own interests onto the quotation for a label. Such folks would find it hard to convince a scoffer that our federal government does much that is not in the majority’s interest or that it does much that goes beyond defending us from each other. The first thing such folks do when they gain power is tear down those controls and begin imposing new laws that violate personal freedom. Most of what would convince such a scoffer would show a heavy dose of favoritism for the rich, an expensive smidgeon of concern for wellbeing of the aged and poor, and a fortune devoted to outside influences.
This all avoids the point, however, of what Jefferson wrote about in Notes on the State of Virginia, Query 17, from which this quote was gleaned. The point of that entire document is made beginning at “But…” in the quote which nicely serves to summarize the following (from the same source):
“Reason and free enquiry are the only effectual agents against error. Give a loose to them, they will support the true religion, by bringing every false one to their tribunal, to the test of their investigation. They are the natural enemies of error, and of error only. Had not the Roman government permitted free enquiry, Christianity could never have been introduced. Had not free enquiry been indulged, at the aera (era) of the reformation, the corruptions of Christianity could not have been purged away. If it be restrained now, the present corruptions will be protected, and new ones encouraged. Was the government to prescribe to us our medicine and diet, our bodies would be in such keeping as our souls are now.”
Jefferson used this section of Notes to explain why government must use no controls over how citizens manage their own minds and bodies, that reason and freedom of thought and expression eventually purge errors of diet and thought.
How does this apply? Let’s use The War on Drugs for an easy example:
Opium, heroin, hashish … Dangerous concoctions get people addicted to them, and many die or harm others while obtaining a supply. The government decides people need protected from that, and religious and corporate influences induce inclusion of an easily grown herb known to promote good health and ease suffering and pain. Enforcement puts many people dependent on the herb in jail along with inmates who introduce them to alternative “medications”. Meanwhile, news media promote all the arrests and capture the curiosity of youngsters who may never have otherwise never have known about the chemicals or herb. Frightened parents, teachers, preachers, and officials issue warnings to curious young children who sooner or later recognize a user from all the information they have been fed. Demand blooms, jails fill and millions are spent to increase prison capacities. Prices go up due to increased risks associated with more enforcement and supply and demand takes over. Murderous cartels organize to fill the supply vacuum and Big Money enters the picture
That gets us up to within the past 10 – 15 years, so your own memory can take over. Had those who run things understood and stood by Jefferson’s lessons, do you think we would have this still growing, nearly out of control problem now?—or would we still have opium, heroin, hashish users in dark corners of smoky slum rooms and children still ignorant of their existence? As it is, how many more have been hurt by that governmental caper than had things been left alone? How many bridges could have been replaced for the cost of all those prisons, not to mention the cost of the crime wave that made them necessary?