Book Review: A Necessary Evil

A Necessary Evil:  A History Of American Distrust Of Government, by Garry Wills

Garry Wills is the Pulitzer Prize winning author of a book on Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, but this book is only worthy of the book equivalent of a Razzie.  At the heart of this book is a strenuous critique of a wide variety of anti-governmental attitudes ranging from militia (the author is particularly contemptuous of the NRA) to those who withdraw from participation in politics, even on religious grounds, but the author’s efforts at making government look like a positive good are self-refuting.  It is clear that, in general, the author identifies with a set of pro-government values (cosmopolitan, expert, authoritative, efficient, confidential, articulated, progressive, elite, mechanical, duties-oriented, secular, regulatory, delegative, and dividing labor) while many of the anti-government critics the author castigates share a set of values (provincial, amateur, authentic, spontaneous, candid, homogeneous, traditional, populist, organic, rights-oriented, religious, voluntary, participatory, rotating labor) (38).  I must admit that I find the second set of values far more appealing than the first, and the author’s attempts at putting blame on those who oppose government for the popular mistrust of government come off rather poorly.

The contents of this book are not conducive to pleasant or positive reviewing.  It is clear that this book is directed at people who share the author’s contempt for those who are hostile to contemporary Progressive government and who dislike being labeled as socialists for supporting Roosevelt’s bogus second bill of rights or his socialist four freedoms.  This book is not being written for the people described in it, and that is generally fatal to widespread understanding.  There are twelve sections of the book, each of them with smaller chapters/sections.  The author begins by criticizing minutemen and term limits as revolutionary myths, before tackling a series of constitutional myths on states’ rights, co-equal branches of government, a lack of a standing army, and the Bill of Rights.  Then the author spends a great deal of time criticizing various nullifiers from Jefferson and Madison and John Taylor of Caroline to the Hartford Convention, John C. Calhoun, and various academic nullifiers.  The author then comments on various insurrectionists, vigilante groups and individuals, individual and group withdrawers from political participation, those who promote civic disobedience, who largely being more left-wing, are treated with more respect by the author, before closing with a weak case for government as a necessary good.

One can often tell the strength of a case that someone has by the strategy they approach in making their case.  As this author engages in some pretty heavy ad hominem attacks on his conservative opposition, and makes his strongest case for the legitimacy of government [1] in pointing to the evildoing and tyranny of local majorities in states and businesses.  The author sounds strangely like the cynical proponents of setting faction against faction that he criticizes as an interpretation of the Federalist Papers in his own cynical placing of a government he views as lacking in credibility because of its secrecy in the absence of accountability or effectiveness against forces of social injustice and corporate malfeasance in the larger society.  Even given the presuppositions of the author, and his two-fold division of qualities, the author could have made a far better case for how governments earn trust by respecting tradition, showing candor, being rights-oriented, and seeking the well-being of the general populace.  Thus gained, this political capital can be used on rare and important occasions in secrecy by an elite to do what is necessary for the well-being of the people but not well-liked.  Garry Wills, though, is not arguing for a federal government that has a lot of political capital.  The values he rejects as provincial and hostile to government are reflective of a larger deficit of trust and confidence in government, which can only be regained by loyal service on the part of civil servants.  How are the agents of government to perform that loyal service of the interests of the people rather than their own interests and those of their cronies.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Book Review: A Necessary Evil

  1. Pingback: Book Review: The Idea And Practice Of World Government | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: One Star Reviews | Edge Induced Cohesion

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