|A NECESSARY EVIL|
December 3, 1999
DAVID GERGEN: Garry, in your new book, you write that Americans have been distrustful of government since colonial days but that over time, we've so invented myths about our past, about our founding, which helped to justify this distrust.
GARRY WILLS: That's right. We had the idea at the Constitution was set up deliberately to be ineffective, to be inefficient. And the way it achieved that was to set up branches of government that were meant to check a balance each other, to keep each other from acting, and that we had sovereign states that were going to keep the federal government from getting out of hand, so that it had a stalemate. We actually have had Supreme Court decisions based on the idea that the American government should not be efficient. Now, governments are dangerous. They can get out of hand. You have to keep them accountable. But to start out with the idea that it is so bad that it has to be kept from doing any kind of efficient work is extremely dangerous. For one thing, government is d in itself, you can't make it good; it doesn't many sense to try to reform it. So the only thing you can do is either be apathetic and try to ignore the government, or be actually oppose to the government in various ways, including armed resistance, if you're in militia.
DAVID GERGEN: And your argument is that in 1787 in Philadelphia, when people came together to write Constitution, they were actually trying to put more energy in the executive --
GARRY WILLS: Absolutely. They wanted it to be efficient . And in order do that they had to give it the right parts. After all, we say "we the people in United States, in order to form a more perfect union. "Perfect" didn't mean just hunky dory, or dreamy, or nice. It meant having all its parts. That was the classical meaning of perfect. Greek gynecologists said you had perfect baby if he had the right number of toes, fingers, and ears, and that kind of thing. Well, under the articles of confederation, there was only one branch of government, totally checked, because you could recall anybody from the legislature anytime you wanted. But the legislature had to do all the administrative work of an executive, had to set up all the boards for judicial action. And so the first thing that they had to do was give executive power to act apart from the legislature, so that it could do its work, and the executive could do its work. So these were put in for efficiency's sake.
DAVID GERGEN: Well, given that, what were the checks and balances all about?
GARRY WILLS: Well, first of all, the anti-Federalists, the opponents of it, said there are no checks and balances, because they thought that meant recall and instruction, and all of that. What Madison says is... he never says there are balances between these things, because they're not equal in his mind. As he says, "the legislative authority is necessarily predominant in a republic." He said that there will be a kind of checking of office against office; that is, if the legislature tries to do what it did under the articles, and again be an executive, the executive has the power to say "hey, wait a minute, that's not your job. That's a job that's been given to me." But all it's doing is defending its turf, as it were. It's not check the legislature in any sense that it's going to influence the way it makes laws or anything that's its turf. So in the Constitution, the other two branches report to the Congress. It is the supreme one. There is no equality. The Congress can dismiss a President. It can dismiss a justice. They can't do that to the congress. It sets up the federal government. It sets up the federal court system.
DAVID GERGEN: Congress was intended to be the primary branch.
GARRY WILLS: Absolutely. Well, it just makes sense. If you make the law, and the others administer and apply it, they're reporting to you.
DAVID GERGEN: Right. You had another strong argument in your book that we have misunderstood the role of guns and the role of militias in the early founding. It's been used by a lot of NRA advocates today. You think there's a myth... there are myths about that.
GARRY WILLS: Oh, many, many. For one thing, we all have kind of grown up with the idea that everybody had a gun in colonial America. Well, they didn't. Guns were expensive. They didn't work well. They were hard to repair. They were no good for hunting. You can't hunt with a musket, or a dueling pistol. And even a long rifle, once you've shot it, you have to get it down and put that long ram thing in and reload it. You get one shot. So most people netted animals, insofar as they didn't eat domesticated animals like pork. But anyway, now people have gone back and looked at insurance rates, and wills, and that kind of thing, and they find that there were very few guns. None of the militias were fully armed. They all complained about that. None of the Revolutionary troops were fully armed. They all complained about that. When we had no imports from the British people, we had to depend on the French. There was very little domestic manufacture. So this whole romance of the gun arose in the 19th century, with the Industrial Revolution, Colt and Remington pouring out these guns-- new kinds of guns, more accurate, and the myth then of the frontier led to this. But the idea that the Constitution had anything to do with private ownership of guns is nonsense.
DAVID GERGEN: And I was astonished by how few guns you said there were. Scholarship now finds like one out of every ten people had a gun.
GARRY WILLS: Yeah, very few. And that's against one out of every ten men, whereas now there are three guns per adult male in America. You know, there's a gun for every man, woman and child in America. There are more gun dealers than gas stations. If you it's easier to get a gun license than to get a liquor license. You know, it's madness. It's just totally out of control. And so they're trying to go back in history and invent these roots of our love of the gun. And they come up with really bogus arguments and bogus history.
DAVID GERGEN: How much difference does distrust of government in America mean for the operation of our nation-state, and of governments in general here in this country?
GARRY WILLS: Yeah, it makes a tremendous difference. In fact, people
from other governments can't understand why we can't control guns; why
we are the only industrialized advanced democracy that has no comprehensive
health care plan for its citizens; we can't control campaign finance
spending. There are all kinds of things we can't do, because the minute
you try to do it, people say "the government's coming, the government's
coming. We can't let the government in. If the government takes away
DAVID GERGEN: And yet people do turn to government in times of crisis, as Franklin Roosevelt was able to enlarge government, and other Presidents since then have done it from time to time when people really thought they needed it. How do we strike a balance between trying to remain the dynamism of the country, individualism of the country, the liberty of individuals, which has been so precious to us, and also achieving our common purposes?
GARRY WILLS: Well, I think the way we have to go is to say government is dangerous, so we have to control it. But it's not a necessary evil, it's a necessary good. It's like marriages can go awry. All things can go awry. If we do that, then we will stop the absurdity of a politics in which people run for office saying, "I hate politicians. I hate the beltway, I hate Washington, I hate Congress. So put me there." And, of course, when you're put there, then you do try to do something. Just... what else are you going to do? And when you do that, then of course people can say, "he lied to us. He said he hated it and now he obviously loves it. He said he would limit his term and now he's there. He wants to stay." So if we would stop this nonsense of campaigning always against government, government in itself, that would be a big step forward.
DAVID GERGEN: You've been writing about that as a scholar and a journalist for a long time. We will look forward to more.
GARRY WILLS: Thank you.
DAVID GERGEN: Thank you, Garry Wills.
JIM LEHRER: FYI, that was the last of the Gergen dialogues, at least for awhile. David's role will be changing for the duration of the political season. He'll be part of our ongoing analysis and commentary team. We will continue to have dialogues with authors. But they will be conducted by our various senior correspondents.