Abraham Lincoln on the Purpose of Government (Or He Wouldn’t be in GOP Today)

From Abraham Lincoln: Complete Works, Comprising His Speeches, Letters …, Volume 1, p. 92:

“If we except the light and the air of heaven, no good thing has been or can be enjoyed by us without having first cost labor. And inasmuch as most good things are produced by labor, it follows that all such things of right belong to those whose labor has produced them. But it has so happened, in all the ages of the world, that some have labored, and others have without labor enjoyed a large proportion of the fruits. This is wrong, and should not continue. To secure to each laborer the whole product of his labor, or as nearly as possible, is a worthy object of any good government.”

– Abraham Lincoln

Reader Bill Chase wrote me that “The National Archives official also included a parenthetical note at the end of the document, in [Robert Todd] Lincoln’s hand: “the foregoing scraps…were written by Lincoln between his election to Congress in 1846, and taking his seat in Dec. 1847.” He says it was printed in a manual he was given when working as a civil servant in the 1940s, but later was excised.

14 Responses

  1. This viewpoint likely also shaped his view on slavery.

    Interestingly enough, a book Lincoln read dealing with the captivity by Arab Moroccans of white Americans as slaves in North Africa and the dehumanization thereof – Skeletons in the Zahara(sic) – was credited with shaping his strong moral convictions against slavery of blacks in the U.S.

  2. I’ll go you one better. None other than Benjamin Franklin had a rudimentary labor theory of value. From A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, “To quote [Benjamin] Franklin again: ‘Trade in general being nothing else but the exchange of labour for labour, the value of all things is, as I have said before, most justly measured by labour.’” -K. Marx

    It’s a testament to their ideological function that no contemporary neoclassical economist would go any where near President Lincoln’s or Benjamin Franklin’s statement with their “analysis.”

    • The “Labor Theory of Value” has long been discredited by all but aging Marxist professors still hanging on to their faculty lounge passes. As Marx stated it, a product’s value is dependent upon the amount of socially necessary labor that went into its production. What Marx completely omitted from his theory was the demand side. A product’s value is primarily determined by demand. No amount of labor that goes into a product will add value if there is no demand for the product.

      Look at the number of restaurants that fail every day because they produce mediocre food, despite the labor that went into establishing the restaurant and production of its meals. Back in the 1950s Ford produced the Edsel, a product which failed (and thus had little or no value) because it did not meet consumer demand, in spite of the amount of labor that went into it on the production line. Economics recognizes some iron laws, regardless whether the system is capitalism or socialism, or some other “ism.” The “Law of Diminishing Returns” and the “Law of Supply and Demand” are two examples. The “Labor Theory of Value” is not.

      • Yeah, the idiotic Marxist notion that demand and preferences don’t matter is refuted. See for example this passage:

        “In fact, however, the use value of the commodity is a given presupposition — the material basis in which a specific economic relation presents itself. It is only this specific relation which stamps the use value as a commodity. Wheat, e.g., possesses the same use value, whether cultivated by slaves, serfs or free labourers. It would not lose its use value if it fell from the sky like snow”

        …by Marx.

        The difference is that he did not equate use value with exchange value. He also knew that there was no such thing as economic laws; they were simply theoretical relationships that may or may not have held, but whose existence depended on certain institutions even if they did. Here he is again:

        “Economists have a singular method of procedure. There are only two kinds of institutions for them, artificial and natural. The institutions of feudalism are artificial institutions, those of the bourgeoisie are natural institutions. In this they resemble the theologians, who likewise establish two kinds of religion. Every religion which is not theirs is an invention of men, while their own is an emanation from God. When the economists say that present-day relations – the relations of bourgeois production – are natural, they imply that these are the relations in which wealth is created and productive forces developed in conformity with the laws of nature. These relations therefore are themselves natural laws independent of the influence of time. They are eternal laws which must always govern society. Thus, there has been history, but there is no longer any. There has been history, since there were the institutions of feudalism, and in these institutions of feudalism we find quite different relations of production from those of bourgeois society, which the economists try to pass off as natural, and as such, eternal.”

        Perhaps you shouldn’t spit so much bile at these ‘idiotic Marxist professors’ who, unlike yourself, have had the privilege of actually reading and understanding Marx.

      • Sure looks like, even from your sectarian “Marxist perfesser” example, there are at least two parts to “value,” and your condescending dismissal of the one (labor) in favor of the other (demand) is nicely typical of the dys-simulations that are the diseased rootstock of the “science of economics.” That “science” that can neither predict nor account for the complexity of interchange between humans, except by post-hoc force-fitting into the Procurstean beds of the various “disciplines,” whether Austrian or Chicagoan or what-ever. That “science” that like the medical arts in service of the Third Reich “proved” the superiority of a fake thing called Aryanism, and dunked prisoners in ice baths to see, again and again, how fast they would die from hypothermia, lacks any soul.

        “Economists” are largely shills for the ruling class, producing theories and formulas and grand hypotheses that “justify” and “elevate” the way things are, without a thought about the way things could, should or ought to be when pain and sorrow and other externalities are brought into the “valuing” schema.

        Just curious: are you wealthy enough now, or do you have a nice pension for past services to capital or government, that you have no fear of want? So that you no longer have to “labor?” And if you still work for a living, as they say, as opposed to clipping coupons or cashing dividend checks, do you work for nothing? If labor has no value, that would be the logical thing for you to do…

      • So Lincoln and Franklin are discredited lefitsts. So the whole foundation of our republic is questionable, and we might as well open it up to conflict again.

        I got something better than the “labor theory of value.” It’s “labor starving to death under market conditions might as well burn the whole damn country down theory.” Let’s factor that into labor markets, like the rich had to do when confronted with that possibility in the ’30s, and see how much more generous the investor class magically becomes than it is today.

        Or if you want to resurrect an oldie, we can call it the Balance of Terror. I’m fine with that.

      • Marx didn’t omit the demand side at all. You used the correct phrase “socially necessary labor time” in the first paragraph, but then reverted in the second paragraph to a naive labor theory omitting the key “socially necessary” element, which mediates labor time via competitive forces. “Necessary” indicates that labor is not wasted; “socially” indicates an average of abstract labor corresponding to a need (and, accordingly, market demand). Simply put, if you haven’t produced something people want, you haven’t produced value.

        Marx studied the classics before him and of course understood the role of supply and demand. However, we also know (e.g., see more recently the Cambridge Capital controversy) that prices are not simply indices of scarcity, and once supply and demand equilibrate they cease to say anything about the ratios at which commodities trade.

        Hope that helps.

      • Wow! Okay, let’s go!

        In your haste to refute Marx, you forgot to read and understand him. Marx argued that the quantity of a commodity’s value is determined by the amount of socially necessary abstract (you forgot or never knew that part) labor used in it’s production.

        Marx uses socially necessary in two senses. The first is the amount of labor time necessary to produce a commodity using normal conditions of production and the average degree of skill and intensity of labor. This eliminates the possibility of a commodity having more value because of lazy or slothful labor used to produce it.

        The second sense in which Marx used the term socially necessary is that the commodity fulfills a social need. If labor is expended in producing a commodity, but it isn’t sold, then the labor used to produce the commodity is wasted. Value was created by abstract labor and embodied in the commodity, but it wasn’t realized in the sphere of circulation through the commodity’s sale for money.

        So you see, the omission isn’t Marx’s. The mistake is that you didn’t comprehend Marx if you read him at all.

        Asserting something is true doesn’t make it so. The “law of diminishing marginal (your forgot that part too!) returns” is a neoclassical economic assumption with no empirical evidence supporting it. In fact, evidence on marginal cost , the price of an input divided by marginal product, is that they rarely, if ever are positively sloped, i.e., marginal product doesn’t decline.

        A production line or process is designed for certain amount of workers. Only an ideologue would believe that in reality, a capitalist would continue to add workers to a production line until marginal productivity of labor fell.

  3. Interesting that these words of Lincoln appear to have eluded most, (possibly all) dictionaries of quotations. -Bill C.

  4. “To secure to each laborer the whole product of his labor, or as nearly as possible, is a worthy object of any good government.”

    This is a very loaded statement, and until someone can document what this younger Lincoln had in mind when he says “to secure,” then there’s really no political philosophy you can yet definitively associate this statement with.

    • Interestingly, if you click the link, you find that Lincoln was writing a letter not on class relations, but attacking free trade and the economic concept that GNP maximization necessarily improves the well-being of a society. Very similar to modern debates about NAFTA and the hollowing-out of local economies by the crappy jobs it produces.

  5. The Republican Party – because it is now the fusion of the northern and southern elites that led the Civil War – can no longer talk with a straight face about Lincoln. Southern Republicans still say terrible things about Lincoln exactly like their Democratic forebears, but conservative propaganda and corporate media insulate northern Republicans (who still have their uses) from hearing it. For instance, Ron Paul saying that Lincoln was wrong to fight (and I think even that he was a tyrant), which is hardly different than former Senate GOP leader Trent Lott telling Strom Thurmond admirers that if the latter had won the presidency in ’48 “we wouldn’t be having some of these problems we’re having today”. Meaning, blacks voting.

    Every Republican who tries to reduce the number of blacks voting (you know who you are) is crapping on the Lincoln Monument. Which is fine as long as you’re consistent and embrace secession. The capitalists who run the GOP would face a disaster if the USA were partitioned, and its military withdrawn from global economic manipulation to turn to face itself along a 2000-mile hostile frontier. And the states that most want to secede are the states where minorities are growing the fastest, so like the Israelis, they’d immediately have to restrict voting rights and then proceed down the road to apartheid. Try getting foreign investment then, racists.

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