Does the Government that Governs Least Really Govern Best?

Libertarians are fond of quoting Henry David Thoreau’s aphorism, “That government is best which governs least.” Thoreau was evidently paraphrasing his contemporary John O’Sullivan, but no matter who first said it, the quotation has become an axiom of those who love freedom. But is it true?

Let’s treat this aphorism as a hypothesis and test it against the data. To know what data we want, we first need to decide just what we mean by “best government” and “least government.”