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


To make this system work, Lincoln envisioned an active role for the federal government, but it was hardly that of a top-down managerial state. “The leading principle — the sheet anchor of American republicanism,” Lincoln said, is that “no man is good enough to govern another man, without that other’s consent.” This was what guaranteed “individuals . . . the sacred right to regulate their own family affairs” and “communities . . . [to] arrange their own internal matters to suit themselves” without wanton interference by government. “The proposition that each man should do precisely as he pleases with all which is exclusively his own” was the “foundation of the sense of justice there is in me.”

So government was not a choice between an all-powerful dictatorship and an anarchistic landscape devoid of highways, traffic signs, levees, and harbor clearance. There were some things that individuals could not accomplish on their own, and it was those things that called governments into being. “The legitimate object of government, is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves — in their separate, and individual capacities,” Lincoln wrote. “In all that the people can individually do as well for themselves, government ought not to interfere.” But “in relation to . . . crimes, misdemeanors, and non performance of contracts,” and the sort of need that “requires combined action, as public roads and highways, public schools, charities, pauperism, orphanage, estates of the deceased,” and protection of “the machinery of government” itself, “there still would be some, though not so much, need of government.”

Lincoln’s rule was neither “big government” nor “no government” but minimal government, with that minimum confined almost entirely to the task of removing obstacles to self-improvement and the development of ambition. “To elevate the condition of men — to lift artificial weights from all shoulders — to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all — to afford all, an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life” was “the leading object of the government.” And in the ultimate sense, the Civil War, by preserving the Union and eliminating slavery, was waged “in order that each of you may have through this free government . . . an open field and a fair chance for your industry, enterprise and intelligence; that you all may have equal privileges in the race of life, with all its desirable human aspirations.” Such a “nation is worth fighting for, to secure such an inestimable jewel.”

And fight he would: “I expect to maintain this contest until successful, or till I die, or am conquered, or my term expires, or Congress or the country forsakes me,” Lincoln wrote in 1862. But there were many places to do the fighting, and one of them was Congress (from which almost all the southern Democrats had conveniently withdrawn when their states seceded). The landmark pieces of legislation that he signed between 1861 and 1865 — the Homestead Act (1862), the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act (1862), the Pacific Railway Act (1862), and the National Bank Act (1863) — together with the Morrill Tariff of 1861, which was signed into law by James Buchanan just before he turned the presidency over to Lincoln, amounted to nothing less than a repeal of six decades of Democratic dominance of the federal government. They would have made Lincoln’s presidency as controversial as Andrew Jackson’s even if there had been no Civil War. The railway act, which funded construction of the transcontinental railroad, was the ultimate version of Henry Clay’s “internal improvements,” while the tariff hiked import duties to all-time highs to protect American industry. (Lincoln backed the tariffs specifically because of the era’s whopping imbalance between European manufacturing and American manufacturing; whether he would have advocated their extension permanently is another matter.) In 1862 the Indiana Democratic state committee complained that Lincoln had struck “down at one dash all the labor of Gen. Jackson for the last four years of his administration.”