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A Necessary Evil:
Nothing may be more American than distrust of government, but Garry Wills says there is something deeply wrong with this tradition. "It is a tradition that belittles America," he writes, "that asks us to love our country by hating our government, that turns our founding fathers into unfounders, that glamorizes frontier settlers in order to demean what they settled, that obliges us to despise the very people we vote for." Although A Necessary Evil is full of historical references, it is plainly motivated by contemporary politics: "I began this book in 1994, when the fear of government manifested itself in the off-year election of a Republican majority to Congress." Wills writes at length about matters such as the republic's founding, the 19th-century debate over states' rights, and so on. Yet the most passionate and engaging sections focus on antigovernment attitudes today, as embodied by the term-limits movement (the founders, he says, never were opposed to professional politicians), the National Rifle Association (whose defense of gun-ownership rights, Wills believes, is ahistorical), and abortion-clinic bombings (which Wills unpersuasively blames on Ronald Reagan). In his conclusion, Wills argues that government is in fact "a necessary good." It may do things poorly from time to time, and it may even do great harm. "But," to draw a parallel, "when marriages fail, we do not think it is because marriage is an evil in itself." A Necessary Evil is an erudite treatment of an important subject. --John J. Miller [via]