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Lincoln: His Words

February 9, 2007

Tags Philosophy and MethodologyPolitical Theory

One of the dangers facing anyone who has come to believe in a certain philosophy or approach is the temptation to ignore or reject useful contributions from those not "pure" enough in their adherence to those principles. Believers in liberty face this particularly starkly with those whose actions contradict their alleged devotion to human freedom.

Unfortunately, rejecting someone's valuable insights because of hypocrisy which does not disprove them is a logical error, with potentially serious consequences. For instance, it would put our founders' defending liberty "out of bounds," particularly from those whose actions once they had power differed from the principles they fought for beforehand. Their abuses, once in power, do testify to Lord Acton's dictum that "power corrupts," but do nothing to reject their recognition of the importance of liberty and the corollary need to curb government.

Restricting oneself to the insights of those who are "pure" is to fall victim to ad hominem arguments, which attack the person making a statement rather than the validity of the statement.

Certainly, someone's consistency with their stated principles adds important endorsement to the power of a valid insight (one reason why libertarians are so fond of Murray Rothbard). That is particularly important in a complex world, where one can easily miss important incentives or causation mechanisms, undermining the degree of certainty in any deductions to be drawn. Those who have earned reputations for recognizing and integrating what others miss act as insurance against such potential mistakes. Yet true statements are true regardless of whether the source is "pure of heart and action," just as falsehoods that come from good men are no less false because they are good.

Perhaps the best illustration of hypocrisy "shunning" among libertarians is Abraham Lincoln. He said some very sage things about liberty. However, those who have studied him know of the vast gap between what Lincoln said on behalf of liberty and the often-opposite things he did (e.g., as revealed in Thomas DiLorenzo's The Real Lincoln and Lincoln Unmasked). They tend to reject virtually any consideration of his words out of distaste for the abuse he visited on America and its ideals or to avoid even a minuscule possibility of being seen as endorsing him in any way.

The vast disconnect between Lincoln's words and his actions is, in fact, a valuable lesson in how one cannot rely on words alone in judging people, their intentions, or the consequences of their acts. But some of those words are indeed inspiring.

"As I would be no slave, so I would not be a master."

"Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves..."

"[Rulers] enslaving their people in all ages...always bestrode the necks of their people, not that they wanted to do it, but because the people were better off for being ridden."

"No man is good enough to govern another man without that others' consent."

"In all that the people can individually do as well for themselves, government ought not to interfere."

"...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...the general government, upon principle, has no right to interfere with anything other than that general class of things that does concern the whole."

"...it is best for all to leave each man free to acquire property as fast as he can...to prevent a man from getting rich...would do more harm than good."

"Property...is just encouragement to industry and enterprise. Let not him who is houseless pull down the house of another; but let him labor diligently and build one for himself, thus by his example assuring that his own shall be safe from violence when built."

"...the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence...gave liberty not alone to the people of this country, but hope to all the world, for all future time. It was that which gave promise that in due time the weights would be lifted from the shoulders of all men..."

"Our reliance is in the love of liberty which God has planted in us. Our defense is in the spirit which prizes liberty as the heritage of all men, in all lands everywhere. Destroy this spirit and you have planted the seeds of despotism at your own doors."

"If by the mere force of numbers a majority should deprive a minority of any clearly written constitutional right, it might in a moral point of view, justify revolution—certainly would if such a right were a vital one."

"We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others, the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men's labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things..."

Certainly some of those words deserve endorsement, even when the ideas they represent stand in sharp contrast to Lincoln's actions (the last quote is particularly ironic, as it implies Lincoln stood for true liberty, when in fact he advanced the "liberty" that is tyranny). In fact, they may merit special attention, to thereby highlight the hypocrisy of the person who said them and help guard against future repetitions. In a world where time and energy are scarce, reading those from whom we have learned to consistently expect insight increases the chances that our time will be well spent. It expands our own insights and reminds us of how important some things are to life. That is why libertarians read a great deal from those who similarly value freedom. But while that may be our foundation, we should not stop there. It would be a shame to lose the inspiration of words such as Lincoln's due to his hypocritical acts—violations that, if anything, demonstrate the validity of those words by their negation. Beginning with our recognition of the importance of liberty, we can also learn from and be inspired by the words of fellow travelers, even if they abandon their own insights.

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