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A Necessary Distortion

January 11, 2000

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

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

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.


Wendy McElroy, author of The Reasonable Woman among many other books, is a frequent contributor to Mises.org.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.

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