cover image A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government

A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government

Garry Wills. Simon & Schuster, $25 (352pp) ISBN 978-0-684-84489-3

In a masterful extended essay, Wills, an accomplished analyst of the American political psyche (and winner of a 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Lincoln at Gettysburg), explores, in all its guises, the great American distrust of government. Antigovernment sentiment is owned by neither the left nor the right, Wills explains: in the 1960s, for example, radicals adopted anti-government values, and Southern conservatives, though steeped in the tradition of states' rights, switched gears to affirm the authority of the federal government to wiretap, arrest and otherwise harass the radicals. The debate over the proper size and reach of the federal government is a moving target, but Wills hits it bulls-eye in chapter after chapter, whether he's debunking the mythology that has grown up around the militias that fought in the Revolutionary War (he argues that the Continental Army played a much more vital role) or clarifying the principles that undergird the separation of powers. He conceived of this book in reaction to the 1994 congressional election, feeling that the Republican Party's Contract With America embodied not a healthy wariness of power but a calcified, and dangerous, antigovernmentalism. Americans, Wills argues, need to stop ""demanding from government qualities that should be sought, primarily, in other aspects of our social life."" He asks readers to value the federal government for the things it can provide, from the quotidian (the highway system) to the majestic (equal protection under the law). Ultimately, his book is an eloquent plea for the maturity that would enable Americans, after more than 200 years, to view government as ""a necessary good."" (Oct.)