Needy Rhetoric

Usually I am merely being a smartass when I task peers for unnecessary use of “need” or “necessary” or “necessity.”  Beyond my waggery, however, I am maintaining that “war of necessity” or “needful means” mislead audiences and speakers and writers.  Individual deployments of of “need” to inflate statements of desire, impulse, or preferences offend the literalist and the punctilious.  As Orwell noted in “Politics and the English Language,” such individual license with language will in time degrade thought.

Profiligate use of “necessary” and its cognates defines indispensability downward.  [I here adapt from the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan the phrase “defining deviance down.”   Please peruse the critique of that slogan at  That is, speakers and writers relax the strict meaning of “need” to indicate circumstances or substances neither essential nor indispensable.   That relaxation is repeated over decades and, aside from wags, goes mostly unremarked.  Posters during World War Two asked “Is this trip necessary?” to encourage conservation of resources for the war effort.  Forms ask how a leave or a grant met the needs of some organization when the organization did not require anything from recipients.  Secretary John Ashcroft thanks Congress for the USA PATRIOT Act as a “necessary means” for the War on Terrorism.  Each usage is arguably appropriate.  Each usage expands understandings of “need” to cover [in mulitple senses] matters or means that are not strictly needful.  Soon politicos and propagandists are touting as requisite courses of action that promote not life and health but their opposites.

Equivocation on “necessary” is neither novel nor modern.  The Constitution of 1787 [Article I, section 8] granted Congress authority to do what was “necessary and proper” to carrying out more explicit authority.  Those jealous of national power or fearful of congressional tyranny could read that authorization as limiting Congress to some degree to means that were indispensable.  That was not how Chief Justice Marshall read the phrase, however.  He took “necessary” to mean “convenient.”  In part because he read the Necessary and Proper Clause as almost entirely a grant of authority and as barely any bound, the “enumerated powers” of 1787 had become by 1987 almost boundless.

The origins of this “Elastic Clause” may seem unremarkable because we all grew up in a nation in which Congress could claim constitutional authority to do almost anything.  Please take a fresh look at the matter.  “Necessary” and “convenient” are not quite antonyms, perhaps, but they are different from one another.  Run the thesaurus [shift F7] in Microsoft Word for “necessary” and you’ll get “optional.”  If Congress has options, then strictly speaking not one of those options is necessary. No one would want to apply The Elastic Clause so literally as to deprive Congress of authority to perform any act that was less than compulsory.  However, the slope downward from utterly essential means to means that are arguably expedient is steep and liable to be exploited by slippery rhetors.

The above reasoning leads me to this advice.  When naifs deploy “need” or “necessary,” gently remind them that more accurate language is available.  When authorities invoke “needful” or “necessity,” be on your guard.  Treat members of Congress like four-year-olds:  Whenever they claim need, they are exaggerating want.

Even Colonel Nathan Jessep in “A Few Good Men” noted the distinctions above:

You can’t handle the truth!  You don’t want the truth because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall. … I don’t give a damn what you think you are entitled to.

Denys Finch-Hatton reminds Karen Blixen of these distinctions in “Out of Africa” as well:  “You don’t need me.  If I die with you die?  You confuse need with want.  You always have.”


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