A Necessary Distortion

Originally appeared on www.mises.org, January 11, 2000

by Wendy McElroy

A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government by Pulitzer Prize winning Garry Wills is a book with a mission. Wills contends that a charming Yankee trait--an ornery suspicion of all things political--is based upon an intricate misunderstanding. He claims that historians have mistakenly concluded that the Founding Fathers and framers of the Constitution believed government was "a necessary evil."

Accordingly, Wills sets out to correct the "myths" of freedom that have distorted American history and contributed to what he considers to be an overly harsh attitude toward government. For instance, he explains that the Second Amendment, which begins "The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.," has no bearing on private gun ownership.

Like many liberals, Wills is evidently fed up with Constitutional gun arguments. Indeed, the second paragraph of his introduction explicitly mentions the National Rifle Association, and does so in a peculiar manner. Wills writes, "The Federalist, written mainly by James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, is not just yesterday's scholarship but today's weapon." He calls the book "useful to the National Rifle Association."

The reference is peculiar because pro-gun advocates typically do not draw upon The Federalist but cite the Bill of Rights instead. The Bill of Rights was demanded by Anti-Federalists who argued against Madison and Hamilton during the ratification debates. Wills is either unaware of the pro-gun arguments or he deliberately misrepresents them. On the other hand, he can't be entirely unaware: elsewhere, Wills admits that Second Amendment "commentators like to quote extensively from the Antifederalist attacks."

There is a slipperiness to this book. Wills's statements often contain enough truth to pass all but informed scrutiny. In short, A Necessary Evil is a well-executed sleight-of-hand that purports to be original interpretation. The book is not only bad history, it is also anti-intellectual at the core.

Consider the first charge leveled: sleight-of-hand. Wills contends that "resistance to government" is largely based on an erroneous view of the American Revolution and the Constitution. Wills claims, "[t]he American attitude toward central power is rooted in the fact that the founding colonies had no central organ of expression." On the surface, this sounds plausible. Certainly, the extreme differences between the colonies (e.g. on religion) contributed to their later tendency to embrace state's rights and reject centralized authority. But the post-Revolution colonies did have a central organ of expression: namely, the Congress established by the Articles of Confederation. It was no less a central organ simply because it was loosely constituted.

Moreover, the colonists' suspicion of centralized power came not from ignorance but from experience. They had experience living under British rule. They had imbibed the classical liberalism of Locke and Paine, and the political theories of such giants as Montesquieu. As with the Second Amendment, Wills seems pointedly unaware of the ideology underlying both the American Revolution and the subsequent suspicion of centralized power.

In analyzing the Constitution, Wills sets up similar straw men. For example, his Constitutional Myth #4 states the 'erroneous' notion that "competition of the governmental units encourages an ethos of competing power centers, pitting factions against themselves in a self-correcting process described [in] The Federalist." Wills observes that the term 'check' occurs only nine times in The Federalist and not at all in the Constitution. Thus, he concludes that the division of powers was primarily meant to promote governmental efficiency. This conclusion dove-tails two claims. The word 'check' was not important to the framers of the Constitution; and, their goal was efficiency.

Consider Wills' first claim. In analyzing the importance of the word 'check,' Wills does not refer to Madison's two-volume record of the Constitutional Convention. Unlike The Federalist, which was self-conscious propaganda, this quasi-transcript reflects the real concerns of those at the Constitutional proceedings. On June 26th, 1787, Madison himself declared to the assembly: "An obvious precaution against this danger [a corrupt Senate] would be, to divide the trust between different bodies of men, who might watch and check each other where all business liable to abuses is made to pass through separate hands, the one being a check on the other."

On July 2nd, the staunchly Federalist Gouverneur Morris defined the purpose of the "second branch": "What is this object? To check the precipitation, changeableness, and excesses of the first branch.. In the first place, the checking branch must have a personal interest in checking the other branch." The Anti-Federalists, who opposed centralized government, were even more enthusiastic about checking federal power. Only by ignoring the records of the Constitutional Convention and of the ratification debates could Wills destroy his own straw man.

Consider Wills's second claim--that the goal of the framers was efficiency. Again, Wills tells enough truth to be plausible on the surface. Delegates to the Constitutional Convention were greatly concerned with efficiency. But efficiency has meaning only with reference to a goal. Madison himself declared, "In order to judge of the form to be given to this institution [the Senate], it will be proper to take a view of the ends to be served by it." The goals of delegates differed radically. Some sought the stability of a strong Union, others argued for the primacy of state's rights. In short, a demand for checks might not indicate an inefficiency of government, but the very reverse.

A lack of definition makes the key concepts of this book--e.g. "efficiency," "government" - soft and pliable. For a book that purports to correct misconceptions about the basis of government, there is no clearly articulated definition of the institution or of its proper basis. At one point, Wills obtusely explains, "on a kind of ladder of interchanges, we have moved up from physical marketing to intellectual dialogue as the basis for government." He briefly refers to the need for a third party to resolve contractual disputes, then blithely assumes this third party is government. How he moves from contractual disputes to advocacy of a strong centralized government is a mystery.

Wills's arguments, like his 'definitions,' lack substance though they are strong on emotional rhetoric. For example, he juxtaposes the welfare of society and individual rights as being in natural conflict. Wills writes, "The real victims [of Constitutional arguments] are the millions of poor or shelterless or medically indigent who have been told, over the years, that they must lack care or life support in the name of their very own freedom." This is the mission of A Necessary Evil--to eviscerate Constitutional arguments that block social programs. To claim that the Emperor [the Constitution] has no clothes, and never did have.

To demolish the "myth of freedom," Wills dips so selectively into centuries of American history that he could prove virtually anything. For example, a quote from "a Continental soldier expressing the 'common sentiment' about riflemen" is used to devastate the 2nd Amendment. Even if the soldier's observation were accurate, it would do nothing to counter the principles upon which the Amendment was based. In eschewing an examination of ideology, Wills elevates snippets of history to the level of theory, making them snippets-on-stilts.

The second charge I have leveled at A Necessary Evil is that it is anti-intellectual. Wills states -- perhaps to explain the absence of theory in his book, "There is good reason to be suspicious of any approach to American history that sees it as a recurring clash between two principles." Yet Wills himself engages in massive and simplistic dualities: Federalist v. Anti-Federalist, anti-governmental values v. governmental values, efficiency v. inefficiency.

Even painting with such broad, vague strokes, he doesn't get it right. For example, he calls those who opposed strong centralized government "anti-government": more often than not they simply advocated a different sort of government, e.g. one that gave primacy to state's rights.

The lack of definition, the misidentification of positions, the refusal to deal with underlying principles: all these factors and more lead the reader to exclaim, "Where are the ideas in this presentation of ideas?"

In his multi-volume analysis of American history, "Conceived in Liberty," (now being reprinted by the Mises Institute) Murray Rothbard not only offered ideas, he also explained his ideological context. He wrote, "My own perspective is to place central importance on the great conflict which is eternally waged between Liberty and Power." Rothbard was on the side of Liberty that recognizes government as the enemy. Wills is on the side of Power that recognizes individual freedom as its antithesis.

As pretentious and dishonest as A Necessary Evil may be, it is part of an interesting phenomenon. Hardly a day goes by without some establishment commentator lamenting the public's lack of trust in government. Americans don't vote en masse anymore. Americans are cynical about politicians. They refuse to surrender their guns to government. In short, the common sense and individualism of Americans stands in the way of "efficient" government--that is, strong centralized government.

A Necessary Evil will undoubtedly be lauded by these 'court commentators' because it allows them to escape the reality that the United States was born in rebellion against precisely the sort of government they champion. And, if the average American questions whether the original ideals have been betrayed by the Leviathan encroachment of Power over two centuries, Wills answers, "You have totally misunderstood the original ideals."

In the end, this book is heartening. If A Necessary Evil is state-of-the-art for statist arguments, then advocates of Power are in trouble.