Will Rogers? Charles F. Kettering? Max Denney? Thomas Jefferson? Robert Heinlein? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: Many complain about the burdensome taxes collected by some governments. Many also complain about the counter-productive and wasteful actions taken by those governments. These criticisms have been combined to produce the following comical remark:
Thank heavens we don’t get all the government we pay for.
This saying has been attributed to Charles F. Kettering who was the head of research at General Motors Corporation for many years. The quip has also been credited to the popular humorist Will Rogers. Would you please explore this topic?
Quote Investigator: This quip is difficult to trace because its phrasing is highly variable. The earliest match located by QI appeared in a Fairbury, Nebraska newspaper in 1947. Local businessman Max Denney addressed a meeting of Rotarians and discussed government spending. He employed the joke but disclaimed credit. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1.
The only bright spot in the cost of government Denney said, is one man’s observation that “Thank goodness we don’t get as much government as we pay for”
QI thinks that an anonymous jokesmith should receive credit for this saying based on current knowledge. Will Rogers died in 1935, and he received posthumous credit in 1966, but the long delay meant that this was very weak evidence.
Charles F. Kettering used the joke in 1949, but he disclaimed credit. See below. Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
By 1949 Charles F. Kettering had retired as head of the General Motors research laboratories and had become a vice president. He visited Birmingham, Alabama and delivered a speech during which he presented the joke as a dialog between two anonymous people: 2
Dr. Kettering in his witty talk in Birmingham Saturday told this little story. One man said to another, “We are paying too much taxes for government,” and his friend replied, “Better be thankful you don’t get as much government as you pay for.”
In 1950 “The Minneapolis Star” of Minnesota attributed the quip directly to Kettering: 3
Charles F. Kettering: “One of the things we have to be thankful for is that we don’t get as much government as we pay for.”
Also, in 1950 a periodical from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce called “American Economic Security” credited Kettering: 4
One of the things we have to be thankful for is that we don’t get as much government as we pay for.—CHARLES F. KETTERING
In 1953 a columnist in the “Dayton Daily News” of Ohio attributed the following two sayings to Kettering: 5
“We should all be concerned about the future because we will have to spend the rest of our lives there.”
“One of the things we can be enormously thankful for is that we don’t get anywhere near as much government as we pay for.”
In 1955 the syndicated column “The Office Cat” printed a version of the joke in dialog form without attribution: 6
“Taxes, taxes, taxes! All I do is pay taxes, and what do I get from government?”
“Well, I can tell you one good thing—you don’t get as much government as you pay for!”
In 1960 the biography “Kettering: Master Inventor” by Sigmund A. Lavine included this lengthy instance: 7
On one occasion he snapped, “one of the things we can be enormously thankful for is that we don’t get anywhere near as much government as we pay for.”
In 1962 Forbes magazine printed the following in its section titled “Thoughts on the Business of Life”: 8
One of the things we have to be thankful for is that we don’t get as much government as we pay for.
—CHARLES F. KETTERING.
In 1963 a newspaper in Newport News, Virginia implausibly linked the saying to U.S. President Thomas Jefferson: 9
And at this time of the year, when the tax returns have been forwarded, we were reminded of Thomas Jefferson’s classic remark: “Thank heaven, we don’t get as much government as we pay for!”
In 1966 “The Clarion-Ledger” Jackson, Mississippi attributed the quip to a famous performer: 10
Will Rogers, the late great humorist, used to say “Thank Heaven we don’t get as much government as we pay for” . . .
In 1968 “20,000 Quips and Quotes” by Evan Esar placed the quip adjacent to a remark attributed to Will Rogers. This sometimes leads to confusion between attributions, but the remark was already being credited to Rogers by 1966: 11
The government is not one bit better than the government we got for one third the money twenty years ago. – Will Rogers
One of the things we have to be thankful for is that we don’t get as much government as we pay for. – Charles F. Kettering
In 1980 science fiction luminary Robert Heinlein published “Expanded Universe”, and he attributed the saying to Rogers: 12
Will Rogers told us that we were lucky in that we didn’t get as much government as we pay for. He was (and is) emphatically right
In 2001 “Random House Webster’s Quotationary” ascribed the saying to Will Rogers while citing a television program: 13
Thank heavens we don’t get all the government we pay for.
WILL ROGERS (1879-1935). In Will Rogers U.S.A., CBS-TV, 9 March 1972
In conclusion, QI believes that the originator of the saying remains anonymous. It was circulating by 1946, and Charles F. Kettering used it by 1949 although he disclaimed credit. The remark was attributed to Will Rogers in 1966 many years after he had died.
Image Notes: Public domain picture of the U.S. Capitol dome in Washington D.C. from Fotocitizen on Pixabay. Image has been resized.
(Great thanks to Lena Primosch whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Lena Primosch noted that the remark had been attributed to Charles F. Kettering and Will Rogers. She also pointed to the adjacent quotations in the 1968 citation, and the citation in “American Economic Security”. Many tanks to Bonnie Taylor-Blake for accessing “American Economic Security” and verifying the 1950 citation.)
Update Notes: On November 17, 2021 the citation in “American Economic Security” was added.
- 1947 June 11, The Fairbury Daily News, Says Public Interest Answer To Worry Over Tax Burdens, Quote Page 1, Column 8, Fairbury, Nebraska. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1949 January 24, Alabama Journal, Alabama’s Distinguished Guests, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Montgomery, Alabama. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1950 February 8, The Minneapolis Star, Quote (Filler item), Quote Page 24, Column 7, Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1950 March, American Economic Security, Volume 7, Number 2, (Filler item), Quote Page 7, Published by U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Washington, D.C. (Verified with scans; thanks to Bonnie Taylor-Blake and the University of North Carolina library system) ↩
- 1953 January 7, Dayton Daily News, Lines by Vines by Ralph Vines, Quote Page 32, Column 1, Dayton, Ohio. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1955 July 18, The Brunswick News, The Office Cat, Quote Page 6, Column 7, Brunswick, Georgia. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1960, Kettering: Master Inventor by Sigmund A. Lavine, Chapter: 17, Quote Page 166, Dodd, Mead & Company, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1962 September 15, Forbes, Thoughts on the Business of Life, Quote Page 62, Column 1, Forbes Inc., New York. (Verified on microfilm) ↩
- 1963 April 18, Daily Press, Editorials: It Could be Worse, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Newport News, Virginia. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1966 July 19, The Clarion-Ledger, U.S. Has 91,000 Governments, Quote Page 8, Column 1, Jackson, Mississippi. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1968, 20,000 Quips and Quotes by Evan Esar, Subject: Government, Quote Page 354, Doubleday, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1982 (1980 Copyright), Expanded Universe by Robert A. Heinlein, Chapter: The Happy Days Ahead, Start Page 515, Quote Page 553, Ace Books, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 2001, Random House Webster’s Quotationary, Editor Leonard Roy Frank, Topic: Government, Quote Page 330, Random House, New York. (Paperback edition; Verified with hardcopy) ↩