Lincoln on Government

Steve Novick

NOTE: The following is adapted from a piece of mine that the Eugene Register-Guard was nice enough to publish a few years ago

Abraham Lincoln is, of course, best known as the first Presidential candidate to win Oregon. (We became a state in 1859 and made the right choice.) Then of course there was that whole business of freeing the slaves and winning the Civil War. But Abraham Lincoln should also be remembered as one of America’s most eloquent explainers and defenders of the role of government.

In a July 1854 essay, Lincoln wrote: “Why … should we have government? Why not each individual take to himself the whole fruit of his labor, without having any of it taxed away?” He answered his own question: “The legitimate object of government, is to do for the people whatever they need to have done, but which they can not do, at all, or can not do, so well, for themselves – in their separate and individual capacities … There are many such things … roads, bridges and the like; providing for the helpless young and afflicted; common schools … the criminal and civil [justice] departments.”

The remarkable thing about Lincoln’s list is that it’s a pretty good description of what Oregon government does today. “Common schools” are the biggest item in the state budget. Health care – care for the “afflicted” – and prisons and courts – “the criminal and civil departments” – are the other big-ticket items in the state general fund. Child protective services – for the “helpless young” – are part of the state budget, too. Our gas taxes pay for “roads, bridges and the like.” It may be 2007, but Oregon government isn’t doing a lot of fancy newfangled things; it’s doing just about the same work government did in 1854.

In the same essay, Lincoln made this observation: “The best framed and best administered governments are necessarily expensive.” In other words: in government, as in life, you get what you pay for. That seemed obvious to Lincoln – but today, most supporters of government services would probably be too scared to be that blunt.

Lincoln’s views on taxation were somewhat out of sync with modern Republicanism; he thought that the wealthier members of society should pay a good deal of the cost of government. As President he enacted a progressive income tax. As an Illinois state legislator in 1839, he defended a proposed tax increase this way: “I believe it can be sustained, as it does not increase the tax upon the ‘many poor,’ but upon the ‘wealthy few.’” He added, with a touch of mischief: “The wealthy can not justly complain, because the change is equitable … If, however, the wealthy should, regardless of the justness of the complaint, as men often are, when interest is involved, complain of the change, it is still to be remembered, that they are not sufficiently numerous to carry the elections.”

One of the stated goals of Governor Kulongoski and State legislators is to “restore faith in government.” Pollsters such as Adam Davis, of Oregon’s Davis and Hibbitts firm, have observed that one problem with our politics today is that many voters don’t really know what exactly state government does. In an effort to address that problem, our leaders might consider employing using the simple, direct and eloquent language of Abraham Lincoln.

  • Anon (unverified)

    From Washington Monthly:

    Contemporary conservatism is first and foremost about shrinking the size and reach of the federal government. This mission, let us be clear, is an ideological one. It does not emerge out of an attempt to solve real-world problems, such as managing increasing deficits or finding revenue to pay for entitlements built into the structure of federal legislation. It stems, rather, from the libertarian conviction, repeated endlessly by George W. Bush, that the money government collects in order to carry out its business properly belongs to the people themselves. One thought, and one thought only, guided Bush and his Republican allies since they assumed power in the wake of Bush vs. Gore: taxes must be cut, and the more they are cut--especially in ways benefiting the rich--the better.

    But like all politicians, conservatives, once in office, find themselves under constant pressure from constituents to use government to improve their lives. This puts conservatives in the awkward position of managing government agencies whose missions--indeed, whose very existence--they believe to be illegitimate. Contemporary conservatism is a walking contradiction. Unable to shrink government but unwilling to improve it, conservatives attempt to split the difference, expanding government for political gain, but always in ways that validate their disregard for the very thing they are expanding. The end result is not just bigger government, but more incompetent government.

    "Ideas," a distinguished conservative named Richard Weaver once wrote, "have consequences." Americans have learned something about the consequences of conservative ideas during the Bush years that they never had to confront in the more amiable Reagan period. As a way of governing, conservatism is another name for disaster.

  • Jefferson Smith (unverified)

    A PolitiCorps Fellow (Dan Golden -- son of former Ashland mayor Cathy Shaw), using game theoretic terminology, made the point "government is most necessary when the dominant strategy overwhelms the optimal strategy." That's another way of saying "when the self-interest trumps the public interest." Another way of saying, "to solve collective action problems."

    If there were more conversations like this on Blue Oregon (instead of jsut gossip), it would be cool. But gossip sells. Funny, isn't it: the tyranny of the self-interest-desire-for-infocandy afflicts the blogosphere in the same way it afflicts the for-profit media. So the deep, basic, or hard stuff doesn't get discussed as much as the candy.

    Good stuff.

  • pedro (unverified)

    hey jefferson,

    nice post, and a fair point, yes blue oregon,as well as much of the blogosphere, is pretty gossipy--this is not too surprising seeing as the latest theories about the development of language seem to point to the probability that language was created in order to ... you guessed it, gossip!

    but take a gander over at mydd, for example, and you'll see for every fluff piece at least half a dozen seriously analytic and strategic (and wordy) pieces. look at the agonist, or glenn greenwald--there is very serious work going on over there. if i had to venture a guess, i would say that the level of seriousness on any given blog is related not just to the talents of the individual writers, but the amount of time the writers are able to spend on research while not earning money to make a living. mydd has enough ad revenue that it can sustain several writers and activists who can scrap by without another job. i'd guess that blue oregon does not even pay their writers.

    you mention a PolitiCorps Fellow who uses game theory ideas to think about politics. i'm sure other PolitiCorps Fellows have their own uniqye talents. perhaps they (or you yourself) could each contribute a guest column to blue oregon over the next year (or whatever) to help elevate the discussion. why not?

  • BlueNote (unverified)

    " . . . If, however, the wealthy should, regardless of the justness of the complaint, as men often are, when interest is involved, complain of the change, it is still to be remembered, that they are not sufficiently numerous to carry the elections.”

    While the wealthy are still too few to carry an election with their votes alone, the wealthy have learned since Lincoln's time that a few well placed media buys and a few donations to "Swiftboat Veterans for XXXXX" <u>can</u> carry an election, notwithstanding what may be good for the majority of the voters or the country as a whole.

  • Former Salem Staffer (unverified)

    It's also worth noting that Bush administration policies have less to do with true conservatism than they do with crony capitalism. Big difference.

  • Hank (unverified)

    Who is Jefferson?

  • (Show?)

    i have recently moved to Seattle (10 days ago or so), and the biggest immediate issue is the Alaska Viaduct. for those of you who don't know Seattle, it's this big ass elevated chunk of Hwy 99. it's ugly, it's noisy, it totally futzes up the downtown as it meets Elliott Bay, and it's busted. the Nisqually earthquake cracked it and it's gotta be replaced.

    the argument here is whether to rebuild it elevated or replace it with a tunnel. no one doubts the tunnel would be better in almost every possible way -- except money. it's half-a-billion more than the elevated version, but both hover around $3 billion.

    the point being that for 15% more, Seattle could have the option that gets rid of the noise and the scenic disruption. it could make the bayfront beautiful, even more of a lure to tourists and residents, and just generally make one of those improvements Seattle is so good at failing to make (don't even get me started on the I5 bridge by UW). but the cheap route (if you call 2.8 billion cheap, and i don't) is likely to win because it is less money. most people, if given the choice for their own life, would spend an extra 15% to make their home decent and livable. but in the public sector, we say, Screw it. i want to save my teensy bit of tax money (yea, as if the work of Sizemore et al have saved anyone in Oregon any money who isn't a major corporation).

    (of course, if we weren't pissing away so much of our treasure into the military it wouldn't hurt.)

    too few people want good government, whatever they say. what most people want is cheap government. not the same thing.

  • (Show?)

    Who is Jefferson?

    who isn't Jefferson?

  • Hank (unverified)
    <h2>Okay, I read the next article and answered my own question...but thanks for the snarky reply... evidently we ALL are Jefferson.</h2>

connect with blueoregon