Some quotations related to Design of Government

Here are some of the quotations I’ve used to make more vivid the issues involved in the design (and operation!) of government. I gave them out most recently when teaching at the School of Public Service at St. Albans School, here in Washington, DC.


“I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”  — Thomas Jefferson


“Deeply embedded somewhere in our thoughts or wishes — no doubt in some corner of the brain that is immune to factual evidence — is the belief that public institutions and programs exist to serve public needs. In this perhaps naive view, the links of the chain of public action begin with the identification of a need of society, by, say, a civic-minded group; next, measures to meet the need are debated and decided upon; and, finally, some institutional arrangement is made, and people set to work. It’s hard to help noticing, though, that in actuality things proceed, as often as not, in quite a different sequence. In this other sequence, the chain begins with the institutional arrangement, and only then is a need sought out — a need that will justify the continuing functioning of the institution. In other words, instead of starting with a problem and looking for an answer one starts with an answer and looks for the problem.” — The New Yorker


“Logic has never been the sole underlying principle of the development of governmental institutions.”– Elliot Richardson, January 23, 1976


“…in a computerized age…there may be a tendency to mistake data for wisdom, just as there has always been a tendency to confuse logic with values, and intelligence with insight. Unobstructed access to facts can produce unlimited good only if it is matched by the desire and ability to find out what they mean and where they would lead.”

“The biggest single need in computer technology is not for improved circuitry, or enlarged capacity, or prolonged memory, or miniaturized containers but for better questions and better use of the answers.” — Norman Cousins, in “The Computer and the Poet” Saturday Review, July 23, 1966


“He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars:

General Good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite & flatterer,

For Art & Science cannot exist but in minutely organized Particulars

And not in generalizing Demonstrations of the Rational Power.”

— William Blake, in Jerusalem, 1820


“There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why… I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?” — Robert Kennedy

Those who “look at things the way they are, and ask why” are at best managers.

Those who “dream of things that never were, and ask why not” are often leaders.

Be a leader…

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