Gary Wills surveys evils of government

October 03, 1999|By David W. Marston | By David W. Marston,Special to the Sun

"A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government," by Gary Wills. Simon & Schuster. 352 pages. $25.

"A Necessary Evil" could have been a very short book. Americans distrust government for the same reason that beaten dogs fear men with sticks, end of story. This immigrant nation, after all, is overwhelmingly peopled with citizens whose ancestors fled abusive governments (or religious authorities), and for many, experience with government even after clearing Ellis Island has been less than satisfactory.

But Garry Wills ignores this central reality, and for good reason. For despite his claims to the contrary, Wills' true objective in his latest book is not to explain American anti-government attitudes. Rather, Wills has an agenda, not hidden. In his words:

"I began this book in 1994, when the fear of government manifested itself in the off-year election of a Republican majority to Congress. Led by Newt Gingrich, and waving a Contract With America, the Republicans promised to dismantle whole agencies, undo regulatory boards, abolish long-term government service, and cut off government subsidies to the arts, to farmers, to welfare recipients."

"A Necessary Evil," then, is political polemic disguised as history, Wills' answer to the Contract With America. And this is the book's central flaw, because the author's determination to refute anti-government attitudes, rather than to rigorously examine them, results in an account that is highly selective and ultimately, unconvincing.

Wills' thesis: that Americans believe, erroneously, that their government is itself against government. This mistaken belief in a deliberately inefficient national government, in turn, arises from Americans' near-universal acceptance of basic constitutional principles -- checks and balances, co-equal branches of government, sovereign states, a Second Amendment private right to bear arms -- all of which Wills contends are in fact mythical.

How could so many have been misled so long? Wills' answer, in a nutshell, is we don't know much about history.

He undertakes to remedy this, explaining what the Founding Fathers really meant, in an extended, often numbing and only sometimes persuasive review of obscure historical documents. Sample: "[Madison] used the classic argument that sovereignty is single since there can be no paramountcies under a paramountcy, no imperia in imperio. Not beach reading.

Out of thin air, Wills also identifies 14 "cluster values," which he calls "Anti-governmental Values" (e.g., provincial, authentic, spontaneous, homogenous, rotating labor), and set against them 14 "Governmental Values" (e.g., cosmopolitan, authoritative, efficient, articulated, dividing labor).

Cults have done more with less, but cluster values are sprinkled throughout, like incense, along with obligatory potshots at Ronald Reagan.

In the end, "A Necessary Evil" is oddly eclectic, like a jumbled cooking recipe. The author prepares some promising ingredients, as he argues that the "Disobeyers" (mainly civil rights activists) are the only government resisters who have ever been successful, credibly shows how the Wild West pioneered strict gun control laws , and concludes by warning that government secrecy is today's greatest danger to democracy.

But Wills' recipe quantities seem skewed, as he blends in large doses of the anti-government views of random individuals and obscure nutty professors, while the Oklahoma City bombing rates only five pages, the Ku Klux Klan four pages, and McCarthyism, a single page. The final mix, unfortunately, is too heavily flavored by Wills' agenda.

David W. Marston is author of "Malice Aforethought," an analysis of abuses in law practice and co-author of "Inside Hoover's FBI," with Neil J. Welch. U. S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania from 1976 to 1978, Marston is now a Philadelphia lawyer in civil practice.

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