Ronald Wilson Reagan, 40th President of the United States from 1981 to 1989, famously said:

The nine most terrifying words in the English language are "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help."

What did he mean by that? Terrifying to whom, and why? I don't suppose he meant it literally.

I suspect the answer is as relevant today as it was when he said this in 1986, so I think this question is more appropriate for Politics.SE than History.SE.


9 Answers 9


Reagan made the statement during The President's News Conference, and understanding the context of the event can help establish his meaning. It's worth mentioning that I've seen some indications that the saying wasn't coined by Reagan, but was in general use as far back as the 70s.

I'd say he was referring to the belief (often held by conservative voters in the United States), that the government, in general, is incredibly inefficient in everything that they do. Sometimes to such a degree that their attempts to help end up actively harming instead. This was also suggested by Reagan during his 1981 Inaugural address.

The view that Reagan was expressing tended to be a precursor to calls for smaller government, where an individual or private organization could complete an action more effectively than the government doing the same.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Commented Oct 26, 2017 at 22:31
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    It's possible it's realted to "If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life." (Henry David Thoreau).
    – Clearer
    Commented Oct 27, 2017 at 8:40
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    I don't think his remarks are purely a reference to inefficiency. It's more like he's saying the government is neither trustworthy nor competent. Inefficiency is part of that, but not the whole story.
    – aroth
    Commented Oct 29, 2017 at 11:55

A great many of the current problems on the farm were caused by government-imposed embargoes and inflation, not to mention government's long history of conflicting and haphazard policies (Reagan's speech that originated the phrase)

Specifically in the context of that speech, one of the implications of that phrase is that:

  1. Government enacts policies that harm some people as the expense of benefiting others (pretty much any act of governance does that, in the context of farms it can be trade policies that make it more difficult/expensive to sell your goods internationally; or regulations that help consumers at the expense of producers - which also benefit less regulated foreign producers at the expense of domestic ones).

  2. Government creates uncertainty (due to changing policies). Nothing can harm business more than uncertainty since you can't make longer term plans and investments; and ones you make get screwed up.

As other answers noted, other issues are generic to conservative small-government worldview and not specific to that speech:

  • Government may claim that they intend to help you, but instead do not intend to help you at best or harm you at worst.

    There were numerous examples in history, including US history. Tuskegee syphilis experiment is among the most (in)famous examples.

  • Government may claim that they intend to help you, but as usual eff things up due to the fact that "government" is comprised of fallible human beings who make mistakes and screw up.

    This takes a variety of shapes, including unintended consequences ("Cobra effect") that make the problem worse; or simple errors. For one of the fun examples specific to US agriculture, see ethanol mess.

  • Government's goals don't always align with your own goals.

    This may be a simple misalignment (you wish to sell your produce for maximum profit, they wish to minimize risks to consumers which reduces your profits). Or it can be a result of incentives of individual members of government (increase one's power, get re-elected, or a mundane "I wanna go home by 4:30pm and have 1 hour lunch" by a clerk who will take shortcuts and do a shoddy job which presumably isn't your own goal). A congressperson may say that their goal is to improve your life as a poor person, to get your vote. But their policies are aimed at getting your vote, but may ultimately harm you (e.g. minimal wage laws causes you to lose your job because your employer can't afford your services anymore).

  • Government can even be honestly and earnestly trying to help you align with your goal. But, it will often do a shoddier job of that than anyone else can.

    Veterans Affairs hospitals are a prime example. I'm sure nobody in government wants veterans to get bad care. But government is so crappy at running things that that was indeed the outcome.

  • And last, but not least, hard-working Americans typically remember to end that statement with:

    I'm from the government, and I'm here to help ... by using money taxed off your income.

    Whether the person would instead prefer to go without said help and keep those taxed monies instead is never inquired into.

  • To your first point, rather than helping some at the detriment to others, I believe he was actually referring to instances where the "help" the government provided was actually the cause of further difficulties for the target of the "help". Commented Oct 25, 2017 at 18:40
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    It should be noted that many of your examples are opinion based. For example, there is about as much evidence that minimum wage laws increase employment in a community as there are that they create unemployment. Another example is the VA care. As a veteran that lives in Arizona (pertinent due to the issues that they had a few years back) I can attest that although they needed extra access to specialty services (which caused some leadership to fudge numbers), the overall care at the VA was exemplary.
    – Aviose
    Commented Oct 25, 2017 at 20:32
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    @Aviose - leaving aside the economist's squabbles (I trust the research showing drop in employment more, but acknowledge some research shows no drop), specific individuals do lose jobs as businesses close up or fire people. That is NOT in dispute.
    – user4012
    Commented Oct 25, 2017 at 20:51
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    @user4012 Yes, but the evidence does not show a causal link, as the research shows both possibilities, and that is part of my point. Although it is commonly sited by conservatives (not saying that is good or bad) it should be noted, explicitly, that this is merely a perspective and not necessarily right or wrong because evidence is conflicting. The opposite could also be right or wrong, but there isn't enough evidence for that either. Businesses close constantly regardless of market conditions.
    – Aviose
    Commented Oct 25, 2017 at 21:19
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Commented Oct 29, 2017 at 3:27

Understand that Reagan was a Conservative. That viewpoint is one that views government intervention dimly. Why? Because if the Government does things, they will be done the way the Government thinks they should be done, not necessarily done in a way that will actually help you. Put a different way, sometimes the Government is more concerned with the process than the result. That was a complaint about Reagan's predecessor, Jimmy Carter

I would like to put forward another theory: The root of the problem is that Jimmy Carter is the first Process President in American history. “Process President”—using a definition by Aaron Wildavsky and Jack Knott—means that Carter places “greater emphasis on methods, procedures and instruments for making policy than on the content of policy itself.”

Carter is an activist. He wants to do things. Yet his campaign statements should have warned us that save for the human rights thrust in foreign policy, his passion in government is for how things are done, rather than what should be done.

Activism is fine and good, but when combined with the power and scope of the Government, it can produce policies that aim for some "greater good" while missing the point that it involves actual people. A recent example of this was the Raisin Board (part of the US Dept of Agriculture). Created as part of the New Deal, it was a governmental board designed to "help" farmers by controlling the price of raisins. It did this by seizing part of farmers crops (usually without compensation). As such, supply dropped and prices rose. The Supreme Court ruled last year it was unconstitutional

California produces 99% of the nation's raisins. In years when the market was glutted, the Raisin Administrative Committee would set aside part of the crop and keep it off the open market. Those extra raisins were then sold overseas or were given to the school lunch program.

In theory, all the growers benefit from the higher market prices. But Horne, a grower from Kerman, near Fresno, objected and accused the board of "stealing his crop" in two years when more than 30% of the crop was set aside. He was fined more than $680,000 by the USDA for violating marketing orders in 2003 and 2004.

He sued, alleging this scheme violated the 5th Amendment, which says private property may not be taken for public use without just compensation.

The high court agreed in Horne vs. USDA. Although most cases about taking property have involved real estate, the principle applies to raisins as well, the court said.

There's an equally legendary quote from Phill Gramm (it's anecdotal but instructive) that went something like this

Former Texas Republican senator Phil Gramm tells the story about the time he was on an interview show with an educational elitist who held to a worldview similar to that of Harris-Perry. He told her, “My educational policies are based on the fact that I care more about my children than you do.” She said, “No, you don’t.” Gramm replied, “Okay: What are their names?”


The phrase was popular before Reagan's use in the '80s. It's best to look at the 1970s examples of its use to understand the full meaning.

From sometime in 1976, see Crop Production Conference Report:

The marketplace was behaving beautifully...Such still appears to be the case, but the process has become less clear in view of the interjection of a factor that had appeared to be pushed aside only a few weeks earlier. That factor is the long arm of government intervention. Along those lines, 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

So here the intent was to criticize government intervention in the free market economy.

Then, see Extension of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, 1977: 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:

... a story I heard down in Richmond. The story is basically just three questions which are supposedly the most suspicious statements anyone can ask.

The first is : The check's in the mail ;

The second is: Of course I'll respect you in the morning; and

the third is: I'm from the Government and I'm here to help you.

Next, see Economic problems of the elderly in Mississippi: hearing 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 :

reminds me of a story ... the three biggest lies in the world...

The first was "my check is in the mail to you,"

the next was "next year your taxes are going to be lower," and

third was "I'm from the Government, and I'm here to help you."

So basically it was a late-70s cliché to say when you didn't want the government to be involved in a situation.

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    Well researched
    – Stilez
    Commented Oct 29, 2017 at 17:17

What did he mean by that? Terrifying to whom, and why? I don't suppose he meant it literally.

Why not?

For example, compare read this FBI press release about operation Cross Country XI. Look, they're helping recuse people from sex trafficking.

Now, read some journalistic reporting on what really happened.

The Washington Post published the following article about the operation cross country IX, noting that "sex trafficking" is just jargon for prostitution these days, among other problems.

Reason, a libertarian magazine, delivers a more pointed assessment, with the title: Feds 'Rescue' Women from Freedom and Money in 11th 'Operation Cross Country', and some stories about the experience of the "rescued" women.

Either way, to hear the FBI tell it, they rescued dozens of women from sex trafficking, while the "rescued" women themselves, who got arrested and charged with a crime probably don't see it the same way. Quite literally, the government is taking the position it helped these people, by seizing their property and charging them with a crime.

And, of course, prostitution/sex trafficking is hardly the only time this happens. This same kind of disconnect between the words of the government and the help they deliver come up frequently in drug cases, where government helps people with narcotic addictions by throwing them in prison for a couple decades, as another great example. Not that one needs to resort to general categorizations - a New Orleans district attorney has been sued for using fake subpoenas to arrest witnesses and even victims of crime as an investigative tool, for example, and I could go on and on and on.

So while there are certainly less literal interpretations for why "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are 'I'm from the government, and I'm here to help'", it can be interpreted quite literally, with the same effect, too.

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    I'm under the impression Reagan wasn't exactly anti-police; there is a lot of government other than police that he probably was more interested in disparaging.
    – user9389
    Commented Oct 25, 2017 at 17:48
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    It's almost as bad as hearing "I've got an offer you can't refuse."
    – Chloe
    Commented Oct 25, 2017 at 18:02
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    @Chloe I'd say it's worse. A mobster generally has the decency to rip you off and leave it at that. After the government is done stealing/civil asset forfeiture-ing all your property, they'll try to throw you in a cage for many years and ruin what's left of your life by hanging a felony conviction on you. Commented Oct 25, 2017 at 18:05
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    It is hard to think that Reagan literally meant that those are the most terrifying 9 words in the English language. Surely something like "your child has been abducted by a known predator" would be much more terrifying. Commented Oct 25, 2017 at 22:59
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    @JohnColeman All a matter of perspective. I wouldn't be terrified upon hearing that my child had been abducted by a predator. People who actually have children would probably have a different perspective. That said, we're talking about a broad generalization, so it can be meant literally, without being true in the strictest sense. Even a statement like "Hitler was a monster" would be vigorously disputed by some many thousands of people, so let's not get too nitpicky here. I don't know if Reagan meant it literally - but it could reasonably be interpreted literally and still be true. Commented Oct 25, 2017 at 23:15

There are many good reasons already stated but some people might not have been around to remember the time period in question.

This was the cold war era where government organizations had little over site and national security covered up a large number of sins. Add to that the cronyism and corruption (minor and major) that results from long term stagnation and you get a number of organizations who do what is good for the organization (not good for the country or the citizens). The stagnation means that for someone to advance themselves in an organization, they have to solve a visible problem, even if they have to create that problem in the first place.

Even when they were actually trying to be beneficial, the policies were generally created from theories by people with no real world experience. Look at what were called "The Projects" which was suppose to help the poor by providing cheap housing. Instead they created high crime slums that simply became legal segregation.

The government got us into Vietnam and kept us in it to have a proxy war with the USSR and to line the pockets of weapon makers who were big campaign contributors.

Watergate was still fresh on people's minds it exposed not what Nixon had done but what everyone had been doing. The famous tape recordings were made by recording devices concealed by the Kennedy administration.

If you want to get an idea of how government was thought of at that time watch some 70s or 80s movies or watch Stranger Things on Netflix (I can't watch that, it's just SOS for me). Or read Stephen King's early works that include any reference to The Company. The popular opinion was that the government was malicious, corrupt, incompetent or any combination of the three.

That's why Reagan's speeches tended to resonate with the people. He rarely invented concepts in his speeches. He was popular because he said things that the majority of the population (who were largely ignored) was already thinking.


In many ways, I believe, Reagan meant it literally. While others have provided some excellent examples, I would like to provide a few more.

Take, for example, the case of American Indian Reservations. They were initially proposed as a sanctuary and way to prevent Am Inds and Am Settlers from coming into conflict. Sure, it wasn't nice to move them, but hey, we're giving them all this land out west. It'll be fantastic. I exaggerate, but not by much. The reality of the Am Ind Reservation system has been nothing short of a horrific tragedy. While they are "sovereign" nations, they have effectively been ghettoized and segregated. Even where tribes have done fairly well, poverty and substance abuse are higher than in comparable areas. That doesn't even touch on the actual horror of the relocation.

Additionally consider the current case of higher education. While there are many issues to choose from, I'll discuss two: Sexual Assault and College Loans.

College loans were initially proposed as a way to help enable the poor and middle class to access college educations to improve their economic stations. It kinda worked in the beginning. College attendance rates did improve as did graduation rates. However, there was a huge issue. This was that now that "free" money was suddenly available, tuition and fees skyrocketed well beyond inflation. This resulted in a popular tactic in the 80's of completing schooling, particularly for things like MD's and lawyers then declaring bankruptcy to discharge the loans. This acted as somewhat of a check to the increase in tuition. However, when Congress changed the laws to make it nearly impossible to have student loans discharged. Tuition rates resumed an accelerated increase. Now we have an entire generation of people with tremendous debt and few opportunities.

On the topic of sexual assault in higher education, let's first agree that sexual assault is both horrible and criminal. As such, it should be prosecuted by the police and judicial system. Schools have no business prosecuting or investigating these matters, once charges are leveled, the police should be called. However, when the Obama administration issues a letter regarding the need for more action under Title IX to prevent/punish sexual assault, the result was something that would be more familiar in the USSR or East Germany than in America. Both young men and young women were accused of heinous crimes, expelled, publicly smeared with titles like rapist without anything that we would recognize as due process. We know that this was/is common, because the volume of law suites from from the people whose lives were destroyed by power maddened school officials is increasing and almost universally being decided in favor of the students, not the schools. This is beginning to change with the combination of law suites and new direction from the Dept of Ed.

  • I find it hard to follow your final example.
    – gerrit
    Commented Oct 27, 2017 at 21:34
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    @gerrit the short short version is that due to guidance from the dept of ed students were prosecuted by administrators after being accused of sexual misconduct. They were not allowed to know who accused them, provide any evidence or respond to the charges. Many were branded rapists and expelled from school. Some of the schools in question have refused to reinstate students who have proved that they weren't even in the same state as the accuser during the time in question. Does that clear it up?
    – Haendler
    Commented Oct 27, 2017 at 22:10
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    @gerrit oh and in some cases, the victims were not informed that they had been tried, convicted and expelled until they were escorted off of campus.
    – Haendler
    Commented Oct 27, 2017 at 22:12
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    @gerrit it's related because the the government instigated these events by using a combination of federal funding for universities and dear colleague letters from the department of education. The government decided to address a real problem, sexual assault, in a terribly incompetent manner that resulted in real damages to all parties involved. Does that make more sense?
    – Haendler
    Commented Oct 27, 2017 at 23:35
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    Specifically, no, he was not talking about sexual assault. What he was talking about is is government incompetence and overreach. Both of which are relevant to the example I provided.
    – Haendler
    Commented Oct 28, 2017 at 23:03

It's about power, and trust.

Do you trust other people to look out for your interests better than you do? On the surface that question sounds absurd, but it isn't as cut-and-dried as it may seem. There's an information asymmetry: they may actually have information that equips them to decide better than you.

As an example, is it in your best interests for the US to go to war in Syria? How do you know? You don't know. And you arguably shouldn't have to know: this is a division-of-labor representative republic. You certainly have a right to voice your opinion as best you can from the information and time you have, but at some point you have to trust the people that are making those decisions for you.

So then the question becomes how much? As little as possible? As much as prudent? Reagan was clearly from the former's school of thought. And that is the function of that saying. It isn't literally true, and it isn't even true in most cases. But it does declare that one is a member of the Red (American conservative) Tribe: one thinks that trust and power should be given only grudgingly when at all.

That may sound rather misanthropic but I don't think it necessarily is, and it certainly provides a useful defensive wall on the slippery slope to tyranny.

  • Although the question is about a US context, the formulation Red Tribe can be confusing in an international context as in most of the world, that would mean socialism / (far) left.
    – gerrit
    Commented Oct 26, 2017 at 14:15
  • @gerrit good point I've edited to specify. Commented Oct 26, 2017 at 14:27
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    @gerrit: And to a good many Americans, "Red Tribe" would be taken as a (rather politically incorrect) reference to American Indians :-)
    – jamesqf
    Commented Oct 26, 2017 at 17:51
  • @jamesqf I assumed the Red/Blue split with the associated political tribalism was obvious enough. If it offends I will reword. Commented Oct 26, 2017 at 19:24
  • @jamesqf choctawschool.com/home-side-menu/history/… In the Choctaw language "okla" means "people" and "humma" means "red". Thus, the area would be named Oklahoma Territory, or literally "Territory of the Red People". Today "The State of Oklahoma" literally means "The state belonging to Red People". Commented Oct 27, 2017 at 21:30

    Reagan was specifically opposed to idea that Government knows better than you what is good for you .

  This idea, very prevalent among today "educated elites" with left and "liberal" leanings, basically says that ordinary average human is immature and ignorant, unable to take care of himself without outside help. And that outside help would be "benevolent" government, permanent nanny if you will (nanny-state) from cradle to grave.

  It is obvious that this idea gradually leads to restriction of liberties (all for supposed good of mankind) and ends with tyranny. In the process, creative spirit of man would be destroyed, because even adults would expect that government "must do something" whenever problem arises, instead of trying to solve it by themselves.

  Reagan and fellow minded people considered that success of United States in the world, its rise to superpower status, is founded exactly on free, independent and entrepreneurial American spirit. Therefore, rise of the big government would lead to exactly opposite direction - stifling of that spirit and gradual demise of US.

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    Downvoted because of unsubstantiated statements that things are "obvious" when they aren't. You may state (preferably with a source) that Reagan believed this to be the case, but it is opinion, not objective truth, that a strong social welfare system (like in Scandinavia) or good infrastructure (like in Switzerland or Germany) gradually leads to tyranny.
    – gerrit
    Commented Oct 27, 2017 at 9:28
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    Lots of allegations, a very peculiar definition of "tyranny", and no evidence to back any of it up. I doubt you will find many Germans who believe their government is a tyranny.
    – gerrit
    Commented Oct 28, 2017 at 22:53
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    @rs.29. I'm not sure why you choose to value freedom of speech more highly than other freedoms, but I can assure you that choosing a different balance does not equate to tyranny.
    – TRiG
    Commented Oct 30, 2017 at 23:38
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    @rs.29 I find it grotesque that you explain that Germny is sliding into tyranny, while in another post explaining that Russia is a democracy. As I from time to time read "Russia Today" myself, I recognize the propaganda from there.
    – Thern
    Commented Apr 3, 2018 at 9:20
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    @rs.29 Every single point of your comment is wrong, but I don't want to get into comment wars. If interested, we could discuss this in a chat.
    – Thern
    Commented Apr 4, 2018 at 21:43

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