Get Uncle Sam off my back! and other misguided impulses

American government-bashers like to wrap themselves in a constitutional flag. But Garry Wills argues that the Founders wanted a strong government, not a weak one.

Topics: Republican Party, Democratic Party, Abortion, Libertarianism, Guns, Gun Control, Books,

Get Uncle Sam off my back! and other misguided impulses

For the past 20 years, it has been the most familiar applause line in American politics: Government is bad, and Big Government is worse. This belief did not originate with Ronald Reagan: Barry Goldwater sounded the theme decades earlier, and it has roots that precede the Revolution. But Reagan rode it to victory, and Republicans (and sometimes Democrats) have been profitably flogging that horse ever since. The ’94 congressional
election, in which a freshman class of virulently anti-government Republicans were voted in, marked its political zenith, and though Newt Gingrich’s hubristic folly prevented the GOP from a complete triumph, it remains a potent force — so much so that President Clinton was forced to pay homage to it with his 1996 declaration that “the era of big government is over.”

Triangulating Democrats notwithstanding, the real home of anti-governmentalism remains the GOP — and the more right-wing the Republican, the more extreme the rhetoric. GOP front-runner George W. Bush must play to the middle, but the True Believers who run Congress — Dick Armey, Trent Lott, Tom DeLay — are under no such constraints. These worthies have scarcely pulled their legs out of their pajamas before they’ve given the corrupt, bureaucratic, meddling elites in Washington their first whacking of the day. Since the deliverers of these speeches are themselves career politicians whose own snouts have snuffled deeply in the loamy D.C. soil, this spectacle is oddly surreal — somewhat like the Reni Magritte painting of a pipe that declares, “This is not a pipe.”

Partly for this reason, but mostly because the endless flagellation of Big Government never seems to result in it getting any smaller (under Reagan, the high priest of government-bashing, the federal government grewenormously), the GOP’s anti-government screechings have begun to sound merely formulaic, scarcely taken seriously even by those who invoke them, like the warm-up patter of a used-car salesman. The intellectual flexibility, to use a charitable word, of the congressional anti-government ideologues does not inspire much respect, either: The same fire-breathers who treat state’s rights like Holy Writ when the issue is, say, restrictions on abortion found no problem in pulling on their federal jackboots last week to trample the “sovereign” state of Oregon, which had legalized physician-assisted suicide. (Even more farcical are those congressional Young Turks who piously promised to serve only one term, but after ascending the marble steps of power somehow changed their mind.)

But if the anti-government impulse is often incoherent, hypocritical or unevenly applied (often it is little more than a thin justification for anti-tax resentment), it has a deep appeal. Throughout American history it has flared up again and again. Its newest frontier is the Web, where libertarianism, its purest and most intellectually rigorous form, is the dominant ideology.

Garry Wills’ new book, “A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government,” is a penetrating but uneven look at the history and causes of American anti-governmentalism. Wills started writing the book in 1994, when Gingrich’s troops had taken Washington, and insofar as it has a goal, it is to undercut the historical arguments — in particular, the appeal to the Founders — employed by today’s anti-governmentalists, whether politicians, militia members, or anti-gun-control zealots.

To a large degree, Wills succeeds in stripping the mythical 1776 garb from anti-government arguments. Since the minutemen, Jefferson, Madison and other patriotic icons are a cornerstone of those arguments, Wills’ book is sure to stir up right-wing intellectual circles. (As Wills reminds us, anti-governmentalism is not confined to the right wing — ’60s New Left radicals also attacked government. But statistically, to paraphrase what Roland Barthes said of myth, anti-governmentalism is on the right.)

Unfortunately, Wills doesn’t explore specific examples of anti-governmentalism with the same depth he brings to his constitutional analysis. In place of a detailed examination of these varying issues and causes, he puts forward an abstract theoretical framework that, while thought-provoking, only seems to fit some of the cases he describes. The second half of the book, much weaker than the first, is a rather cursory survey of various movements, events and individuals that rejected government in a variety of ways. It’s a worthwhile historical roundup, but inevitably superficial; and the subjects he looks at are so wildly disparate — from “withdrawers” like Thoreau to “vigilantes” like the Ku Klux Klan to “insurrectionists” like John Brown — that it becomes difficult to see what they have in common.

This feels like an opportunity missed. The prolific Wills (he is the author of 22 books on subjects ranging from John Wayne to St. Augustine) is one of our leading polymaths, a scholar who is also a keen student of contemporary culture; but he’s not bringing everything he has to the subject. It would have been more stimulating to see him taking off his constitutional-scholar coat and taking on some hard contemporary cases, like gun control, affirmative action and abortion rights. With this caveat, “A Necessary Evil” is a stimulating and important analysis of a peculiarly American phenomenon.

The anti-governmental tradition in America, according to Wills, is due to a number of “confluent influences”: “the lack of a symbolic center (religious or political) at our origins; the air of compromise in our Constitution’s formation (which made it vulnerable to the reversal of Federalist and Anti-federalist values); the Jeffersonian suspicion of the Constitution (which Madison abetted at one stage); a jostling of competitive states’ claims (reaching a climax in the secession of the South); a frontier tradition; the Lockean individualism of our political theory; a fervent cult of the gun. All these were added, in overlapping layers, to the general anti-authoritarian instincts of mankind.”

Beneath all of these factors lie what Wills calls a “cluster of anti-governmental values,” which he lists in table form next to their opposites, “governmental values.” The anti-governmental values are “provincial, amateur, authentic, spontaneous, candid, homogenous, traditional, popular, organic, rights-oriented, religious, voluntary, participatory, and rotational.” Their governmental counterparts are “cosmopolitan, expert, authoritative, efficient, confidential, articulated, progressive, elite, mechanical, duties-oriented, secular, regulatory, and delegative, with a division of labor.”

Wills argues that Americans have a “deep emotional engagement” in this “cluster” of anti-governmental values, both because of the “confluent influences” listed above and because of their innate worth: “No one can really challenge them as valuable parts of the human outlook.” In fact, so deep is our attachment to these values that we persistently rewrite history to make it accord with them. In particular, we distort the meaning of the Revolution, the Constitution and the views of the Founders, in particular James Madison.

The “national mythology” about the Revolution, Wills says, is that it was a “revolution against central authority in general. So great was the Americans’ impatience with being told what to do, according to this myth, that they won their war and set up their government without needing a counter-authority to direct them.” Government itself, no matter what its form, was seen as the enemy of the highest good, liberty. Accordingly, the Constitution was designed to be deliberately inefficient, intentionally made by a government “so distrustful of itself as to hamper itself.” Pessimistic about human nature and convinced that all power corrupts, the Founders conceived of government as what Thomas Paine called “a necessary evil.” “We are faced with a zero-sum game,” Wills writes. “Any power given to the government is necessarily subtracted from the liberty of the governed.”

This myth of the Founders, Wills writes, “is of continual service” to those opposed to a variety of governmental policies: “Are Americans less protected against threats to their health than other citizens of industrial democracies? Say that is so — but are we to purchase health at the price of liberty? … If the government has the power to take away guns, all our liberties are gone … Increasing the size of government inevitably decreases freedom.”

Considering the potency of this anti-governmental strain in American life, it is not surprising that terrorists like Timothy McVeigh, or members of right-wing militias, not to mention the government-slashing, Gingrich-led zealots of the House class of ’94, see themselves as patriots in the Jeffersonian tradition. (McVeigh had a T-shirt bearing a disturbingly gory quotation from Jefferson: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”)

For Wills, however, the “real victims of our fear [of federal authority] are not … the 168
people killed (and many more injured) by McVeigh. The real victims 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. Better for them to starve than to be enslaved by ‘big government.’ That is the real cost of our anti-governmental values.”

Wills meticulously and methodically knocks down the myths that support those values, starting with those concerning the Revolution. The iconic figures of the Revolution are the minutemen, who “in a spontaneous and amateur way … fought as individuals united by love of hearth and locality, not by external discipline.” While this notion is not completely without historical foundation, Wills demonstrates that it is at variance with reality. The militias were supposedly democratic and universal; but in fact, the wealthy often bought their way out. Few Americans of the day even owned a gun — America didn’t become a gun culture until after the Civil War. Worst of all for those who appeal to the militias as evidence of the power of armed citizen resistance, the militias were bad soldiers, undisciplined and disorganized; their main contribution (a painful reality check for the black-helicopter crowd) was as an internal police force, a kind of original FBI.

Wills isn’t done with the militias. In a later chapter on the NRA that will probably prove the most controversial in the book, Wills argues that the “right to bear arms” language in the Second Amendment is a purely military right, intended to apply to the militias of the day. Contemporary readings of it as legitimizing private gun control, he argues convincingly, are anachronistic.

Another Revolutionary-era myth concerns term limits, which George Will and others have claimed were embraced by the Founders. In reality, Wills observes, mandated short-term governmental service proved so chaotic and inefficient during the Continental Congress period in the 1780s that it was abandoned.

The most telling chapters in the book, however, concern the Constitution. For Wills, the triumph of the ideas most of us hold about the Constitution — that federal authority was deliberately made inefficient, through a system of checks and balances, in order to weaken itself and preserve states’ sovereignty; that its branches are co-equal; and that the competition of factions is desirable — “is one of the most successful mythologizings of a large historical sequence that can be found in all of history.” In fact, Wills argues, the states are subordinate to the larger government in all essential matters and were intended to be so. Against President Reagan, who “liked to say that the states were more important than the federal government since they had preceded it and formed it,” he cites President Abraham Lincoln, who wrote, “Our states have neither more nor less power than that reserved to them in the Union — no one of them ever having been a state outof the Union.”

The crucial argument concerns the allegedly self-undercutting, deliberately inefficient nature of the Constitution. For Wills, those who subscribe to this theory fail to place the Constitution in its historical context as a replacement for the Articles of Confederation, a weak, anti-federalist blueprint that was a notorious failure. Wills argues that the Constitution was created precisely to removethe inefficiencies that resulted from the Articles’ federal weakness — not to perpetuate them. The words “checks and balances” appear nowhere in the Constitution, Wills points out; the branches of government were not designed to impede each other, but to increase efficiency by assigning to each its proper sphere. (They are not “co-equal,” either; the legislative function is dominant.)
As for the local power celebrated by anti-governmentalists from Jefferson to Reagan, Wills shows in a virtuoso discussion of Madison’s famous Federalist No. 10 that such dispersed power inevitably results in the tyranny of the local majority — as exemplified by white denial of black rights in the pre-Civil Rights South. Only an abstract, detached, cosmopolitan power, free of “local passions,” can justly rule on such matters.

In short, the anti-governmentalists, far from being true to the spirit of the Constitution, are really partisans of the flawed and derided document it superceded. But it’s probably too much to expect politicians to acknowledge this: “Mom, the Bible and the Articles of Confederation” just doesn’t have that good stump-speech ring.

Wills may not give enough due to the fear of despotic authority that motivated the Founders. But that doesn’t invalidate his larger point about constitutional efficiency: The two points aren’t mutually exclusive. The Founders were clearly conflicted, as Wills’ fascinating discussion of what he calls the constant “dos a dos reversing of positions” makes clear. It seems quite reasonable to believe that they held philosophical reservations about federal power while acting practically to ensure that their government actually worked. Indeed, Wills’ discussion of the issues confronted by the Founders as they tried to work the wrinkles out of their new government remind us that in the real world, anti-government attitudes are often not so much wrong as completely irrelevant: a hierarchical structure, laws, abstraction, elites, planning, etc. are integral to the very enterprise itself.

Following his discussion of constitutional issues, Wills launches into a survey of various anti-governmental movements and individuals. He starts with the “nullifiers,” those who denied federal jurisdiction, like slavery defender John C. Calhoun; moves into “secessionists” (the Confederacy); “insurrections” like Shays’ Rebellion, the Whiskey Rebellion and the Oklahoma City bombing; “vigilantes” like San Francisco’s Vigilance Committee; “withdrawers” like Thoreau and H.L. Mencken; and “disobeyers” like Martin Luther King Jr. His historical survey doesn’t condemn all of these defiers of the law, but along the way, Wills stops to throw some sharp elbows: In a pointed swipe at gun worshippers, he derides the six-shooter duels of the West as mythical (the six-gun of the day was a completely inaccurate weapon, even at close range) and points out that the Wild West, far from being a shoot-’em-up utopia, was where gun control was born. In his critical discussion of the New Left, he asserts that anti-Vietnam protesters actually prolonged the war.

What these wildly disparate groups, events and individuals have in common, Wills argues, is that each of them is motivated by, and finds justification in, the familiar “cluster of values” associated with anti-government attitudes: spontaneity, localism, religion, amateurism and the like. Wills is surely right that these values are commonly invoked by people opposed to given governmental policies — but his apparent belief that this “cluster” is invariably the underlying cause of that opposition is questionable. This view fits intellectuals like Christopher Lasch (a leading critic of top-down morality and planned altruism) better than it does the man in the street.

People can be opposed to governmental policies simply because they disagree with them, and would disagree with them no matter who or what imposed them. Take affirmative action: Many opponents believe that it is unjust and discriminatory in and of itself, not because it is imposed from on high. After the fact, they may berate out-of-touch elites, since those are the people who imposed the policy on them, but their opposition does not derive from that. The inconsistency of anti-governmentalists is more often than not purely issue-driven, as in the case of the GOP legislators for whom “the sanctity of life” trumps the rights of the state of Oregon. Wills’ theoretical framework is provocative but too abstract: A more nuanced look at specific instances of anti-governmentalism would have revealed a more complex story.

In his final chapters, Wills regains momentum in an eloquent defense of government as not a necessary evil but a “necessary good.” Against what he believes is a vulgar reading of Locke, which sees him as having regarded all government as an infringement on the primordially self-sufficient individual (Wills argues not just that this reading is reductive, but that Locke’s social contract theory is itself a “latecomer” to political theory and should not be taken as the last word on the subject), Wills puts forward the Aristotelian notion that man is inherently a social animal, and that the stability government provides “makes love itself possible.” Implicitly arguing that government is not different in kind from human relationships in general, he writes, “The arbitrary and petty acts of government are enough to make anyone grumble. But all human relationships grate or gall at times — which does not make us call the parent-child relationship, or the husband-wife bond, or friendship, mere necessary evils.”

This stimulating, if too brief, discussion makes one wish that Wills had taken up the contradictions inherent in conservative anti-governmentalism. The libertarian, free-market conservatives, following the classic liberalism of Adam Smith, are at least consistent — but the moral conservatives, who assert that authority and tradition are needed to prop up fallen man, collapse into utter confusion. Insofar as government is the mediated representation of society, rejection of it implies a selfish, me-first atomism that deviates from Christian theology and the higher group values celebrated by moral conservatives. By failing to address either libertarianism or moral conservatism, Wills leaves his theoretical discussion comparatively undeveloped.

In similar fashion, one wishes he had gone more deeply into the Manichaean psychology characteristic of some anti-governmentalists: Many of those who denounce government most strongly seem to have an almost infantile aversion to any limits on their freedom at all, suggesting not so much a noble yearning for freedom as improper toilet-training.

But these are minor objections to a book that succeeds in its main purpose, that of removing the prop of the Founders and the Constitution from anti-governmentalists. The impulse to bash authority will never die — nor, as Wills acknowledges, should it — but at least in the future it may have to march forward without tricorner hat and musket.

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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