Mr. Lincoln’s Economics Primer
From the Dec. 20, 2010, issue of NR.


The antidote to slavery, Lincoln insisted, was also economic: free labor. In the 19th century, free labor was the shorthand term for a particular way of viewing capitalism: as a labor system, in which employers and employees struck bargains for production and wages without restriction, and where the boundaries between these two roles were fluid enough that today’s employee could, by dint of energy, talent, and foresight, become the employer of tomorrow.

Slavery was the polar opposite of free labor. With very rare exceptions, it denied the slave any future but that of being a slave, and it replaced the open-ended arrangements of employees and employers with a rigidly dictatorial system. The harmful effects extended beyond the slaves themselves, Lincoln wrote, because in the process, all labor became stigmatized as “slave work”; the social ideal became “the gentleman of leisure who was above and scorned work,” rather than “men who are industrious, and sober, and honest in the pursuit of their own interests.” Men who are industrious — that, of course, described Lincoln. Slavery, then, was not merely an abstraction; it was the enemy of every ambition Lincoln had ever felt.

Free labor, however, was ambition’s friend. Like Adam Smith, who traced the “the real price of everything” to “the toil and trouble of acquiring it,” Lincoln believed that labor laid the foundation for everyone to build up capital of their own. “Capital is only the fruit of labor; and could not have existed if labor had not first existed.” The folly of slavery lay in its assumption that the vast majority of laborers were indolent and without ambition, “that nobody labors unless somebody else, owning capital, somehow by the use of it, induces him to labor.” Since by that rule “nobody works unless capital excites them to work,” the most efficient way to motivate laborers to work is to “buy the men and drive them to it, and that is slavery.”

In a system of free labor, by contrast, the prospect of profit incites the laborer to work and save, then turn into an entrepreneur himself and hire others to labor. Hiring workers, in turn, not only fires the entrepreneur’s ambition, but opens up the path of ambition for his employees, “men who have not their own land to work upon, or shops to work in, and who are benefited by working for others.”

Lincoln was aware that pro-slavery propagandists had begun claiming in the 1850s that laborers in northern factories were, in reality, no more free to make wage bargains than slaves on southern plantations. In fact, they claimed, “free labor” was worse off, because employers had no obligation to provide health care for mere wage-earners or to support them in childhood and old age, the way slaveowners did for their slaves.

Lincoln found this comparison absurd, largely because his own life experience refuted it: “Twenty-five years ago, I was a hired laborer.” A typical young man in this situation, he explained, “has for his capital nothing, save two strong hands that God has given him, a heart willing to labor, and a freedom to choose the mode of his work.” If the beginner really is willing, however, “he works industriously, he behaves soberly, and the result of a year or two’s labor is a surplus of capital . . . and in course of time he too has enough capital to hire some new beginner.” This, to Lincoln, was the key flaw in the slavery defenders’ case: Slavery offered no reward at all for sobriety or industry, while free labor was the “just and generous, and prosperous system, which opens the way for all — gives hope to all, and energy, and progress, and improvement of condition to all.”

He did not deny that there were hired men who never became anything more, but that was not because of any defect in free-labor capitalism. “If any continue through life in the condition of the hired laborer, it is not the fault of the system, but because of either a dependent nature which prefers it, or improvidence, folly, or singular misfortune.” Ambition was not a crime to be punished. “We do not propose any war upon capital,” he insisted. Far from it: He wanted “to allow the humblest man an equal chance to get rich with everybody else” and “leave each man free to acquire property as fast as he can.” The genius of free labor, he explained to an audience of workingmen in New Haven, Conn., was that “when one starts poor, as most do in the race of life . . . he knows he can better his condition.” Lincoln wanted every “man to have the chance — and I believe a black man is entitled to it — in which he can better his condition. . . . That is the true system . . . and so it may go on and on in one ceaseless round so long as man exists on the face of the earth!”


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