18 August 2008

Lincoln Vindicated? Part 4: Big Government

Thomas L. Krannawitter's usual approach when defending Abraham Lincoln from his critics is to explain the good reasons why Lincoln did certain things that critics condemn. His strategy changes when Thomas DiLorenzo and others accuse Lincoln of being the "father of big government," the historic enabler of modern liberalism and the regulatory welfare state. Facing that challenge, Krannawitter says his client didn't do it.

Complicating Krannawitter's defense are plentiful liberal voices saying: oh yes he did -- and it's a good thing. The author has a twofold task: to prove that Lincoln did not envision the welfare state that he and DiLorenzo both despise, and dissuade liberals from claiming Lincoln as one of their own. His mission requires him to explain how liberals came to embrace Lincoln. Apologizing in advance for the digression, he recounts the rise of the "Progressive" movement within the early 20th century Republican party. Lincoln was a hero to the Progressives, but for the wrong reasons. They embraced Lincoln as an innovator who responded to the challenge of his time and thus expanded human rights. They invoked Lincoln every time they sought to expand human rights. Their Lincoln is the hero of Aaron Copland's "Lincoln Portrait," who urges the people to "think anew and act anew" (if I remember the quote correctly) in new circumstances in order to save the country.

Krannawitter is convinced that the Progressives and their liberal heirs are "historicists." The historicist is the enemy of the Straussian. While followers of Leo Strauss insist that natural rights are unchanging and apprehensible to reasoning minds at all times, historicists allegedly argue that rights, not to mention Right, are determined by historical conditions. As portrayed by Krannawitter, they also claim that rights derive from the state rather than from human nature. The archetypal historicist would argue that Lincoln can't instruct us perfectly because circumstances have changed since his times. For Krannawitter's purpose, the historicist embraces Lincoln as a model of pragmatism rather than prudence.

What emerges from Krannawitter's discussion of historicism vs. natural rights is his belief that natural rights have natural limits. They cannot be expanded beyond a certain point. There are rights asserted today that Lincoln would not endorse. According to Krannawitter, these include the "economic rights" proclaimed during the New Deal and the Great Society eras. Those excessive rights claims led to an abandonment of government's proper limits, which Lincoln recognized.The assertion begs questions: would Lincoln have supported the 20th century civil rights movement and the legislation it engendered? Would he support the feminist movement on the premise that "all men and women are created equal?" Would he support the gay rights movement? ("Was he gay?" a popular question elsewhere, is beside the point). Where does natural right draw the line?

"Limited constitutional government results from an understanding that the ends of government are limited primarily to securing the natural rights of individual citizens and fostering the general moral and political conditions necessary for free society," Krannawitter writes (p.294). Recall from Part 2 that Lincoln distinguished between "natural rights" and "social and political" rights. He believed that blacks had the natural right not to be enslaved, but wasn't prepared to grant them the social and political equality with whites. By modern "historicist" standards, he looks like a racist, but for Krannawitter, defending blacks against enslavement, albeit rhetorically only for most of his life, absolves Lincoln completely from the racist charge. We can infer one limitation of natural rights: Lincoln apparently believed that government could not or should not "legislate equality," however much he may have thought racial equality to be philosophically true. In general, it seems, human beings have a natural right to demand only so much, and more would go against natural right.

This places Lincoln closer in thought to the contemporaries whom Krannawitter has portrayed as his antagonists, and Krannawitter's endorsement of this viewpoint places him closer to DiLorenzo's position. Both favor "limited government," and both seem to believe that there is a social realm (what Krannawitter calls "free society") where government, or more specifically, politics cannot reach. Likewise, the slaveholding ideologues, led by John C. Calhoun, believed that organic society, as it evolved over the course of history, was essentially pre-political and not properly subject to political regulation.

We could claim that there has been a consistent struggle between "right" and "left" throughout American history over the scope of government. The "right" will always be found defending certain spheres of society from political regulation, the slave plantation most notoriously but more generally the "domestic" sphere. They argued that government shouldn't intrude on a master's relations with his slaves, they've also argued that it shouldn't intrude on a husband's relations with his wife, and they argue today that it shouldn't intrude on parents' relations with their children. Because it's an evolving (dare I say progressive) debate, it shouldn't surprise us to see figures who stood on the "left" in their time, like Lincoln, turn into figures of the "right" as the dividing line of the debate moves, for the sake of metaphor, leftward.

Krannawitter would probably prefer that people like Lincoln, whom he argues always stood for limited government, should always be seen on the "right" side of the divide. He definitely believes that slaveholding secessionists don't stand for limited government, no matter what DiLorenzo says. Despite my deep disagreements with Krannawitter on many points, I have to applaud when he writes, "The cause of the Confederacy was not the cause of limited government, or states rights. Slavery represented the ultimate rejection of limited government" (293). DiLorenzo disagrees because, for all that he deplores slavery himself, he endorses the secessionist notion that slavery, the organic social relation of the plantation, doesn't count as "government" and shouldn't have been subject to political regulation.

Krannawitter himself concedes this point. Defending Lincoln against critics on the left who wished he had acted more decisively and quickly against slavery, the author insists that Lincoln could not go outside the Constitution, which guaranteed slaveholders' right to their property. Of course Krannawitter is okay with Lincoln going outside the Constitution to suspend habeus corpus unilaterally and imprison dissidents, so the Emancipator's early reticence regarding slavery is probably written off as another instance of his vaunted statesmanlike prudence. Those wartime measures are some of DiLorenzo's best evidence for the "father of big government" charge, but Krannwitter excuses them as temporary measures that Lincoln didn't live to repeal but never meant as permanent policy. Krannawitter often appears to be saying that whatever Lincoln did was prima facie correct, for no better reason than that he espoused a belief in natural rights. By that standard, Mikheil Saakashvili is exactly the champion of liberty the neocons claim him to be, all his offenses against Georgian civil liberties aside, because he, too, says the right thing.

But I've digressed. Overall, I'm inclined to agree with Krannawitter on the immediate topic, but not for any reason he'd like. I'm glad to concede that Lincoln would not be a modern-day liberal Democrat, even though I'm less inclined to believe he'd be a Reagan Republican. It's probably as ludicrous as Krannwitter makes it look for Mario Cuomo to claim that Lincoln would be "pro-choice" on the abortion question, if only because Lincoln never thought of that subject as a political question. If he did, he probably would be "pro-life" on natural right grounds, but a time-transplanted Lincoln might surprise us on that and other issues. Dealing with the Lincoln who lived and is dead, it's easy for me to admit that he wasn't a 21st century liberal because he was indisputably a 19th century Republican. It's fine for Krannawitter to state what's actually obvious, that Lincoln wouldn't be comfortable in the modern Democratic party, but if he argues this point only to imply that Lincoln would have been more comfortable in the modern Republican party, or among the Straussians and neocons, then he's just as misguided as everyone he criticizes.

There'll be one more installment later this week in which I offer my own verdict on the right thing to have been done in 1861 and some reflections on the relevance of the Lincoln debate for an increasingly divided American conservative movement. Stay tuned.

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