President Barack Obama used the occasion of Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday to continue his assault on the American Revolution and the U. S. Constitution. In a commemorative speech in Springfield, Illinois on February 12th, 2009, the President said, quoting Lincoln:
"The legitimate object of government," [Lincoln] wrote, "is to do for the people what needs to be done, but which they can not, by individual effort, do at all, or do so well, by themselves."
This statement by Lincoln is seen by Obama as justification for his hugely statist agenda. He cites Lincoln’s support for a government-backed construction of a trans-continental railroad which, he implies, could never have been built by “individual effort”, despite the fact that the railroad boom of the 19th century was primarily the enormous achievement of private individual inventors, entrepreneurs, capitalists, and industrialists. (Nor does he mention that government involvement in the railroad business led to the coercive railroad monopolies for which capitalism is unjustly blamed. But that is another matter.)
He declares that Lincoln’s statement concerning the role of government justifies his massive federal takeover of key American industries. Private, free individuals, he declared:
“cannot rebuild our levees or our roads or our bridges. It can't refurbish our schools or modernize our health care system; it can't lead to the next medical discovery or yield the research and technology that will spark a clean energy economy.”
Only government can achieve those things… and much more. As he laid out in his inaugural address, he plans to use the coercive power of the federal government to seize or expand control of our communications infrastructure, energy and healthcare industries, education at all levels, science and (the here-to-for mostly free) technology sectors. This breathtaking agenda is all justified based upon Lincoln’s vague quote and the railroad example. (This last is a good example of how the unfortunate precedent of a single government intrusion into the economic sphere can have dire long-term consequences for economic freedom.)
But what did Lincoln really mean by that statement? The government does play a vital role. Kept within proper constitutional constraints, no free society can exist without it. The protection of individual rights is the only legitimate justification for government. To prevent anarchy and societal breakdown, the retaliatory use of force against those foreign enemies or domestic criminals who violate those rights must be vested in an independent institution governed by objective law. That is something that only government, not private individuals, can do. Another example is the civil law courts designed to settle peacefully honest contractual disputes among private individuals. And, of course, only government can mobilize resources for and direct a war effort to protect its citizens' rights and property…including, of course, the civil war to preserve the union, end slavery, and prevent America from becoming what Lincoln called a “slave empire”. There sure are things that only government can do.
But there are also things that government should not do…violate the rights of private citizens by seizing their earnings to “invest” in projects that they choose not to invest in voluntarily.
Despite his administration’s limited intrusion into the economic affairs of the nation, Lincoln undoubtedly understood the proper limits of government, for the same man quoted above also said:
"I have never had a feeling, politically, that did not spring from ...
the Declaration of Independence ... that all should have an equal
chance. This is the sentiment embodied in the Declaration of
Independence ... I would rather be assassinated on this spot
than surrender it."
It is obvious that the “equal chance” he speaks of is a direct reference to that afforded by the principle of unalienable individual rights possessed by all people and protected equally by government. He also said:
“I believe that every individual is naturally entitled to do as he pleases with himself and the fruits of his labor, so far as it in no way interferes with any other men's rights”
“Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves.”
Yet Obama claims that the man who ended slavery based upon his ironclad convictions that “spring from ...the Declaration of Independence…” would approve of his authoritarian agenda. The man who ended slavery…i.e., racial collectivism…would approve of the national collectivism of forced “sacrifice and responsibility” to “do the work that must be done” and which is allegedly “part of the definition of being American.” Lincoln, Obama basically claims, would not know the difference between private, free individuals uniting voluntarily and to mutual benefit to achieve a common purpose…and a government that forces that purpose on its citizens through some rights-violating, centrally planned “shared sacrifice”!
It is my contention that the over-arching aim of the American Left is and has been the overturning…no, the obliteration…of the American Revolution, in order to achieve their dream of a socialist America. This country’s founding ideals and documents are obviously an impenetrable bulwark against such designs. Obama seems to understand this, citing the lack of wealth redistributive authority as a "fundamental flaw” in our constitution
America’s implicit founding ideals of reason, rational egoism, individual rights, and laissez-faire capitalism were never clearly expounded philosophically and morally (until the 20th century). As a result, loopholes of statism, such as the power of eminent domain, the commerce clause, and tax-funded government control of education, seeped into our nation’s founding. Like metastasizing cancers, these (and other) loopholes slowly stoked the growth of government and consequent shrinkage of freedom. Therefor, aspiring statists can, and do, find elements inconsistent with our founding ideals in the writings and governance of key figures of early American history to justify their authoritarian initiatives. President Lincoln was no exception. But his or any president’s statist tendencies, such as they were, do not and can not erase the dominant Enlightenment intellectual and philosophical forces that shaped America’s birth.
President Obama is desperately seeking to redefine the convictions of our historical leaders in order to “find” the authority to justify his goals. But it is in a dangerous direction that this president is taking America.
Perhaps our new president should heed this warning from the man that he honored on February 12th:
“America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”
Yes, Barack Obama has a lot to learn from Abraham Lincoln.