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The Mises Review

Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

A Necessary Evil

Garry Wills

1 2000
Volume 6, Number 1



Spring 2000


Garry Wills
Simon and Schuster, 1999, 365 pgs.

Garry Wills is a man with a mission. He wishes to expose for the falsehood that it is a myth that has bedeviled American history. Teachers of heresy such as Thomas Jefferson and John C. Calhoun have maintained that government, especially the U.S. federal government, is at best a necessary evil. Strict limits to its power must be imposed: otherwise, it will soon impose tyranny.

But Mr. Wills knows better. The anti-government fanatics have supported their false doctrine with legends about the meaning and purpose of the Constitution. Once he clears these away, Wills thinks, people will be ready to accept the truth: energetic government is a good, essential to a well-ordered society.

Before beginning a gentle critique of Mr. Wills's thesis, let me make an admission. He might complain that his views are unlikely to be fairly considered by a follower of Murray Rothbard who writes in a publication named for Ludwig von Mises. Is having me review this book analogous to a critical essay by Stalin on The Gulag Archipelago? Perhaps; but Mr. Wills has certainly made my job easy by the extraordinarily poor quality of his arguments.

The main reason to view the state with suspicion is a simple one. Albert J. Nock, one of the figures Wills discusses, developed the point in an especially effective form. The "political means," as Nock called it, rests on coercion. It is parasitic on voluntary production and exchange: on its own it makes nothing. If a state is necessary at all (a necessity that Nock and his followers denied) surely it must be kept within rigid bounds.

What, one wonders, can our defender of government say in reply? Has Mr. Wills found some flaw in the argument which has eluded less discerning analysts? Our author disappoints: he does not mention Nock's central argument at all. Instead, he provides an irrelevant discussion of Nock's opinions of the Jews. Even on this peripheral subject, he fails to cite Nock's most important essay, which appeared in the Atlantic Monthly (June 1941). See also the debate with John Chamberlain in subsequent issues.

The principal argument against government does not merit mention: but what is to be said in the institution's defense? Mr. Wills's main effort is puerile. He points out, correctly enough, that people cannot function alone. Man is a social animal, who must live cooperatively in order to survive and prosper. To good effect, our author quotes Plato about the imperative need for the division of labor.

But what has all this to do with the state? The entire point of Nock's central argument is that the state impedes social cooperation. The very points about society which Wills makes constitute, to the anti-statist, strong evidence for his position.

Wills knows this objection full well. "What has been described so far is just the exchange of goods. Why does that involve a government, the state" (p. 303)? Wills responds that exchanges are contracts: hence a state is needed as a means of enforcement.

Did I miss something? There appears to be a gap between the premise-exchanges are contracts-and the conclusion-the state is necessary. Where is the intervening matter? All that Mr. Wills says is this: "But without the state the free market could not exist.... A businessman cheated by another businessman cannot form a private police force, to haul the accused into a court which consists of the aggrieved person judging his own case, and then to compel submission to the verdict. A third party must do that, in whom a sanctioning power has been recognized.... The state, far from being an enemy of the market system, is both the market's product and its perpetuator" (p. 303).

Even by my tolerant standards, Mr. Wills has gone too far. How can he not be aware that individualist anarchists have proposed that the function of adjudication and enforcement he rightly thinks essential can be handled by private protection agencies? Mr. Wills can, if so inclined, dismiss these suggestions as inadequate: he is hardly within his rights ignoring them altogether.

And what is one to make of the last sentence in the passage just cited? If the state is the market's product, then how did the market manage to bring it into being? How can the private market create anything more than a private enforcement agency? Further, suppose that Wills's non-argument is right: we do need a state. Why would anything more than a minimal state that enforces contracts be required? Almost everyone on Wills's list of horrid anti-statists, from Jefferson on down, would have had no trouble endorsing such a night-watchman state. Our author has not noted that he has inadvertently deserted to the enemy.

If Mr. Wills as a political philosopher is a total disaster, he is little better as a historian. Like Abraham Lincoln, he rejects the view that the states created the national government. Quite the contrary, the states were subordinate to the Continental Congress from the inception of the 1776 Revolution: "The colonies did not act, so far as independence was concerned, singly but in concert. The entity that was declared independent was the united body of states...Lincoln was right, after all" (p. 60).

How odd that Mr. Wills has enlisted in the camp of the Great Railsplitter. Not long ago, Harry Jaffa, that keeper of the Eternal Lincoln Flame, denounced Wills as a follower of Calhoun. One awaits with interest Jaffa's reaction to his new disciple.

To return to Mr. Wills's argument, he himself recognizes a problem. What about the Articles of Confederation? "The mere fact that they [the states] took separate votes to enter the Confederation shows that they were not already in it. The full thirteen states did not ratify till 1781.... Those outside the Confederation certainly look like separate entities" (p. 61).

Unfortunately, our author does not find his own objection convincing. He fancies himself a textual critic of skill, able to extract the finest nuance of meaning from a historical document. He will tell us the meaning of the Articles.

I cannot say that he acquits himself in this endeavor with entire success. He claims that under the Articles, a state "must stay in the union unless all twelve other states gave them permission to change the Union or dissolve it" (pp. 62-63). Mr. Wills's sentence does not parse, but never mind: his meaning is sufficiently clear. His assertion that unanimous consent was required for a state to leave the union grievously misreads Article 13. It is a change in the Articles that requires unanimous consent, not a change of membership in the Union. The Articles do describe the Union as "perpetual," but Wills fails to note that this word can mean "without a fixed term" as well as "forever." Unless he can show that the second meaning was intended, he can get no anti-secessionist mileage out of the word.

Wills does no better when he gets to the Constitution. He places great emphasis on James Madison's nationalistic aims at the Philadelphia Convention and during the First Congress. As he rightly notes, Madison wanted to give the federal government the power to veto laws passed by the state legislatures.

But why does this matter? Madison's proposal of course failed of passage; and the more general aims of Madison at this period form no part of the Constitution as ratified. What counts when interpreting the Constitution, as the late M.E. Bradford never tired of insisting, is the intentions of the members of the state ratifying conventions.

Wills thus falls into fundamental error when he says: "the [anti-government] distortion began very early, when the arguments of Antifederalists against the Constitution were said, only a decade or so after that document's ratification, to be embodied in the Constitution" (pp. 16-17). To secure passage of the Constitution, its advocates often had to offer concessions to Antifederalists at the ratifying conventions. Contrary to Wills, then, it is to a large extent justifiable to read the Constitution through Antifederalist lenses.

Our author makes many surprising assertions in A Necessary Evil. Justice Story's claim that the Second Amendment was intended to help resistance to usurpation of power by the government is brushed aside with "Story is hardly infallible" (p. 215), though Wills is elsewhere glad to mention him when he took a nationalist position (p. 60). Dietrich Bonhoffer thought that Hitler should be killed, but he did not consider doing the job himself (p. 21). Witches in New England were hanged, not burned (p. 43). I shall not go on: to catalogue Wills's errors is decidedly not a necessary evil.


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