At a press conference on August 12th, 1986, US President Ronald Reagan said, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’”
So many short statements, quotes, and even off-hand phrases and jokes become engraved in stone as wisdom when they’re uttered by someone whom a large part of society already considers a hero or sage. Even the most facile and simple utterances become maxims when they happen to have come out of the mouths of Gandhi, Churchill, Lincoln, Einstein, and Mark Twain. I think this cultural habit is already extreme, problematic, and sometimes dangerous, as I’ve explained in many of these Quote or No Quote shows. But this societal tendency seems to be getting worse and more intense with the expansion of the internet and social media. One day I fully expect the most mundane of statements, “I need to tie my shoes” to be attributed to Einstein, and then quoted as scientific wisdom to guide us through this millennium and help us slow down climate change.
Such is the case with this statement made by President Ronald Reagan at that press conference in 1986. Reagan summarized his long-held suspicions about the effectiveness and morality of the role of government in people’s lives by saying, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’”
This Reaganism certainly sums up his views on government (even though, as I’ll show later, the formulation of this quote and sentiment is hugely problematic). And the quote re-appears whenever politicians (in the United States, anyway) propose new or expanded government economic or social programs. We’re seeing it being employed now in reaction to the Biden administration’s infrastructure funding proposals. Reagan-worshipping pundits and media outlets trot this out at such times, investing it with gravity and inherent truth as if it came from the Bible or the US Constitution.
Government and government programs make things worse, they argue, and hurt people. You’re right to cower in fear whenever the government “comes to the rescue,” they assert with all the confidence that comes from being backed up by Reagan. But where does this statement come from?
Like so many famous “quotes,” it was not coined by the person who gets the credit for it — in this case, Ronald Reagan. Researchers here at the Buzzkill Institute, as well as heavy-weight quote experts such as Josh Shapiro at the Yale Book of Quotations, and Garson O’Toole (the pen-name of former Johns Hopkins computer scientist Dr. Gregory Sullivan at QuoteInvestigator.com, and author of “Hemingway Didn’t Say That: The Truth Behind Familiar Quotations,” which is on the Buzzkill Bookshelf in the blog post for this episode) have studied this extensively.
And they’ve reached the conclusion that it appeared in the mid- to late-1970s as a bit of folksy wisdom sprouting from places like Reader’s Digest and humorist columns in newspapers.
It may have started as a “joke” running around the military or large organizations in the 1960s, that went like this: “the sentence ‘we are here from headquarters to help you’ usually means that your division or part of the organization is about to be given the axe.”
It first started to appear in print in 1973, in a “Crop Production Conference Report” written by the Crop Quality Council, an American farming organization. According to this Council, the crop marketplace was performing very well in the early 1970s, but that “the long arm of government intervention” was making the future analysis of crop prices uncertain. That prompted the report’s writer to state,
I would like to tell an appropriate story. The three most unbelieved statements in the world are:
1) The check is in the mail;
2) Of course, I’ll love you in the morning like I do tonight, and
3) I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.
It seems clear from the tone of this “witticism” that the phrase had been around at least a little while.
Senator Edmund Muskie, Democrat from Maine, was reported to have said to a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Chicago in early 1976,
The three most common lies are, “I put your check in the mail yesterday,” “I gave at the office” and “I’m from the federal government and I’m here to help you.”
Source: Sunday News Journal (Wilmington, Delaware), 1 February 1976.
U.S. Representative John Rousselot, Republican from Southern California, said the same thing in May, calling these promises “the three greatest fabrications of all time.” (Source: Arcadia Tribune, 6 May 1976)
Conservative commentator and columnist, George F. Will, said essentially the same thing in July 1976. (Source: Frederick [MD] News, 19 July 1976)
The same basic idea was uttered during testimony before the U.S. Senate when they were considering “Extension of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act” in 1977. (Source: Hearings Before the Subcommittee on Child and Human Development of the Committee on Human Resources, United States Senate, Ninety-fifth Congress, First Session … April 6 and 7, 1977.)
And it appeared the next year during a hearing on “Economic problems of the Elderly in Mississippi” in the U.S. House of Representatives. (Source: Rearing before the Subcommittee on Retirement Income and Employment of the Select Committee on Aging, House of Representatives, Ninety-fifth Congress, second session, Jackson, Miss., February 20, 1978.)
It had clearly become a well-worn observation in political and government circles by the time Reagan said it when discussing government support to farmers during the 1986 press conference I mentioned at the beginning. And it appeared throughout the 1990s and into the 21st century, especially when right wing commentators referred to Reagan’s political ideology. Controversial writer (and friend of the show — not!), Dinesh D’Souza, quoted it in his 1997 book, “Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader.”
And, as I said in the show’s opening, it has re-appeared in 2021 during the debates over the Biden administration’s plan to drastically increase funding to meet America’s infrastructure needs. That’s why we’re hearing it again lately.
Ordinarily in these Quote or No Quote shows. I would leave it there — explain the history of the quote and show that, once again, it wasn’t the work of the most famous person who uttered it. But I want to take this discussion a little further and talk about the meaning and utility of this sentiment — “the most terrifying words are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’”
It was, and is, a moronic and childish thing to say and believe. That’s right, I’m saying that Reagan was being moronic and childish when he said it with a grin, that George Will (who, with his PhD, should know better) was moronic and childish when he wrote it in a column, and that the politicians and commentators who are employing it now are being moronic and childish.
Let’s take “moronic” and “childish” one by one.
It’s “moronic” because even 10 seconds of actual thought makes you realize that being “from the government” could mean being “from the fire department,” “from Child Protective Services,” (in the American context) “from FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency” in times of natural disaster, and so many more. It meant the First Responders who saved hundreds during the attacks on September 11th and often gave their lives trying to save more.
Are we to be terrified when an Emergency Medical Technician uses the jaws of life to extract us from a wrecked automobile that’s crushing us? And, perhaps most appropriately, given Reagan’s worship of the military, are we supposed to have been terrified when American armed forces helped stop a genocidal maniac like Hitler?
And this doesn’t even include the seemingly endless government corporate bailouts, economic incentives and giveaways to companies to put offices and factories in certain areas, land grants to private institutions, and the ludicrously generous tax breaks given to large corporations and rich individuals in the United States. These are exactly the kinds of “terrifying” government help that Reagan championed during his administration, and that created some of the largest deficits and biggest federal debt levels in our history.
Of course, there have been lots of times when governments, including the U.S. government, have done terrible (indeed inexcusable) things — allowing slavery and child labor to exist and thrive, helping to wipe out Native Americans, and so many more.
But to lump all government (and by extension, societal) attempts at improving people’s lives as terrifying oppression is not only historically inaccurate, but politically dangerous. Countries and societies have always employed mutual aid in order to survive. It has worked in various ways, and not worked in other ways, but to abandon the idea is to give in to anarchy. And that’s moronic thinking.
It’s “childish” because, as I’ve implied, it’s an overly-simplistic way of looking at the world, how it operates, and how we might try to make it operate better. As we keep saying on this show, the supposed wisdom contained in one-liners from famous and iconic people almost always overlook (and sometimes steamroll) the complexities of social, political, and historical realities. If you have a one-line answer for everything (which Reagan almost always did), you’re using school-yard “it’s all one way or the other” (nah-nah-na-nah-na) rhetoric to address serious, grown-up, and complicated problems.
I opened this show by talking about how some reactions to President’s Biden’s infrastructure plans are employing this mantra these days. I’ve ended it by arguing that this mantra is moronic and childish. But I can’t resist leaving you with one more thought.
If the American experience of the past few years has taught us anything, it should have been that shallow, stupid, and reactionary approaches to the country’s problems only end up hurting us more, and putting us in deeper and deeper holes. As Americans, we should be asking ourselves, “do we really want moronic and childish people like Margorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz representing us in the United States Congress?”
Because it’ll be terrifying if we get any more of these types of politicians. Finally, we should also realize that it’s our responsibility as voters to make sure this trend towards the terrifying stops.
Fred R. Shapiro, The Yale Book of Quotations
This reader-friendly volume contains more than 12,000 famous quotations, arranged alphabetically by author. It is unique in its focus on American quotations and its inclusion of items not only from literary and historical sources but also from popular culture, sports, computers, science, politics, law, and the social sciences. Anonymously authored items appear in sections devoted to folk songs, advertising slogans, television catchphrases, proverbs, and others.
For each quotation, a source and first date of use is cited. In many cases, new research for this book has uncovered an earlier date or a different author than had previously been understood. (It was Beatrice Kaufman, not Sophie Tucker, who exclaimed, “I’ve been poor and I’ve been rich. Rich is better!” William Tecumseh Sherman wasn’t the originator of “War is hell!” It was Napoleon.) Numerous entries are enhanced with annotations to clarify meaning or context for the reader. These interesting annotations, along with extensive cross-references that identify related quotations and a large keyword index, will satisfy both the reader who seeks specific information and the curious browser who appreciates an amble through entertaining pages.