Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Political Philosophy

Lincoln v. Obama or Liberty and Justice v. "Fairness" and Power

Allen C. Guelzo writes a compelling essay today for First Things in which he examines Abraham Lincoln's own understanding of justice and what it means to be an American and then contrasts it to the understanding of these things now advanced by the current occupant of the White House--now veiled by the suggestion that he is, indeed, Lincolnian.  Guelzo, one of the country's most respected Lincoln scholars, finds no deep point of agreement between these two Presidents on these central questions. Indeed, Guelzo suggests that Obama's failure to see the difference between his own views and those of Lincoln gives those of us who do know Lincoln an "uneasy sense that Barack Obama has wrapped himself in some other man's coat."

Our president is fond on taking note of what he calls the "cynicism" of those who will not embrace or bend to his notions of "fairness."  On the occasion of the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth, Barack Obama elaborated upon his notions of justice and fairness by saying that it is the, "sense of shared sacrifice and responsibility for ourselves and one another," and, further, that this is "the very definition of being American."  As Guelzo notes, this may be "a" definition of American justice--but it is decidedly NOT Lincoln's. 

President Obama likes to suggest that those who stand in the way of his proposals to advance this particular variant of "fairness" (which, I have no doubt, are well-meaning and generous from his point of view) do so out of a kind of base attachment to power for power's sake.  They are opposing him, at best, out of stubborn adherence to an "outmoded" ideology or,  at worst, out of nefarious alliances with "special interests" whose greed feeds their power jones with campaign contributions and God-knows-what-all. 

Obama, on the other hand, is the opposite of cynical--at least to his own understanding.  He pushed for "Hope" and "Change" because politics had become what he considered to be a bastion of cynics where anyone with eyes could certainly see that progress demanded "fairness" but old habits left Washington without leaders who had the will or the force of personality to insist upon it . . . at least until Obama came to town.

But Guelzo wonders if every instance of "unfairness" is, thereby, also an incidence of injustice.  There are many things in life that are "unfair" but it does not always follow that they are "unjust."   To use an example that Guelzo does not cite, but may be said to apply, consider the following:  It may be "unfair" that a mind as fine as Lincoln's was born into poverty and, instead of having access to a first rate education with ample leisure to digest the knowledge that he had the capacity to master, was forced by his family's circumstances to turn his attentions to back-breaking and mind-numbing menial labor.  But was it unjust?  Lincoln did not appear to think so.  While he certainly desired to get himself out of that line (and, when given the opportunity, he did get out of it) the only thing he came close to describing as "unjust" about the experience was his resentment over his father's penchant to take from him the entirety of the fruit of his labors.  Justice demanded that this money should be put toward the cause of his own advancement . . . his own efforts to strive to be equal to his potential.  The taking of his earnings could be seen to be standing in the way of Lincoln's efforts to rise to that level of equality and, therefore, it could be called a form of injustice.

But even this injustice may not rise to the level of equality with the law--that is to say, it may not be worthy of redress by the law in every circumstance--perhaps especially not in a case where the "victim" is a minor who remains within the custody of and the responsibility of his parents.  The liberty of parents first would have to be taken into account.  And this is another crucial difference between Obama and Lincoln--respect for the power and majesty of law and its impartial application to all citizens, regardless of the "fairness" of the outcome. Laws can be altered, of course, but real respect for justice demands that such changes be guided by the principles of liberty born out of our undeniable equality and because of which so many have sacrificed their own comfort for the sake of protecting in our Republic.

As Guelzo puts it: 

Not every complaint about fairness is really a protest against injustice; and not every complaint about injustice can be satisfied without running some risk that its real motive is the will to power. "Inequality is certainly never to be embraced for its own sake," Lincoln admitted. But that was no sanction for "the pernicious principle . . . that no one shall have any, for fear all shall not have some." Two hundred and one years after Lincoln's birth, it might be well to remind ourselves that the real enemy of both fairness and justice is not weakness of will or an unwillingness to bear "shared sacrifice," but the seeping gas of power.

Discussions - 1 Comment

The attempt to understand Lincoln as the equivalent of some twentieth-century civil rights champion ignores a distinction that used to be obvious. Always remember that Lincoln's moniker was "The Great Emancipator", as in emancipation, as in liberty. That emphasis was safely within the main currents of the American political tradition. The increased, and increasing emphasis on equality is a European import that gained purchase mostly in the 20th Century and has been working its mischief ever since.

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Remembering Lincoln at Powerline.  I hate to correct Scott, but Lincoln was not the unanimous choice of the brand new Republican Party - he was the relatively-unknown compromise choice when a contentious convention could not agree on one o Read More

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