January 9, 2014


A Conservative Vision of Government (MICHAEL GERSON and PETER WEHNER, Winter 2014, National Affairs)

In important respects, Abraham Lincoln continued the philosophical arc of the framers of the Constitution. No president revered the founders as much, spoke about them as often, or read them as closely as did Lincoln. His presidency "undertook no permanent reconstitution of the federal government on Leviathan-like proportions," writes the scholar Allen Guelzo -- but Lincoln insisted, as the founders did, that government adjust to shifting circumstances. And he believed, as they did, in a federal government strong enough to achieve large national purposes.

For Lincoln, those purposes included the transcontinental railroad, "land-grant" college legislation, the National Banking Act, tariffs, and the imposition of temporary federal personal income taxes to cover the cost of the Civil War. He also believed the federal government should play a key role in promoting ownership and entrepreneurship: the foundations of a free economy. Most famously, and in direct continuity with Washington and Hamilton, he believed the federal government should be powerful enough to protect itself from dissolution in the name of state sovereignty.

Lincoln's governing philosophy, however, ran even deeper than that, extending beyond that of the founders in a direction that prefigured some of the policy developments of 20th-century America. In what is known as his "Fragments on Government," he wrote:

The legitimate object of government, is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves -- in their separate, and individual capacities.

Among the things requiring the "combined action" of government in Lincoln's view were "public roads and highways, public schools, charities, pauperism, orphanage, estates of the deceased, and the machinery of government itself." Government, Lincoln went on to say, "is a combination of the people of a country to effect certain objects by joint effort"; he included in those objects of joint effort "providing for the helpless young and afflicted." Nor did he shrink from the financial implications of so large a role. "The best framed and best administered governments," he acknowledged, "are necessarily expensive."

Lincoln therefore understood the role of government (though of course not necessarily the federal government) to be to help those who cannot individually do for themselves, to advance justice in an unjust world, and to lift up the weakest members of society. Lincoln would later say that "government is not charged with the duty of redressing or preventing all the wrongs in the world" but that it "rightfully may, and, subject to the constitution, ought to, redress and prevent, all wrongs which are wrongs to the nation itself."

It speaks well of conservatives that they want to be thought of as the defenders of the Constitution. But at a minimum, "constitutional conservatives" should recognize what both the federalist founders and Lincoln actually envisioned for the republic they created and preserved. They were, on the whole, rigorous, empirical, modern thinkers, as well as sober and skeptical heirs of the Enlightenment, who believed they were fortunate to inhabit an age of progress. Far from being constrained by the prevailing physical, political, or economic arrangements of America in 1787, the founders fully expected America to spread across a continent, undergo economic and social change, and emerge as a global actor. And they purposely designed a constitutional system that could accommodate such ambitions. [...]

Government should, as a first resort, set the table for private action and private institutions -- creating a context in which social and civic institutions can flourish. People are right to be generally skeptical of centralized government action because the world is too complicated to be run by technocrats and planners. Limited government is more often good government; and it is good government because it secures individual liberty, takes into account human nature and people's self-interestedness, and allows people to pursue their potential and achieve great things that improve lives beyond their own.

Conservatism is heavily context dependent, however, so when private institutions are enervated or insufficient in scale -- perhaps in part because of unwise government policies, though often for reasons that go beyond government -- society has a duty to respond, including with public and not merely private actions. When communities are in crisis, to simply pull government away would allow those communities to decline or collapse, and pull down innocent lives in the process. And historical context should matter. The institutional arrangements appropriate to 18th-century Massachusetts are going to be very different than the institutional arrangements appropriate to inner-city Chicago in the 21st century.

The key to the art of governing is to figure out when government should pull back and when it should engage, and when it engages, precisely how it should do so. In other words: Does government have an appropriate role to play in a particular situation?

Health care provides an example. Advances in medical technology, health-care infrastructure, and national wealth have made health care a different type of social good than it was in the 18th and 19th centuries. It is a legitimate and appropriate public goal to ensure broad access to modern health care. But the first instinct of President Obama's Affordable Care Act was centralization and heavy regulation, inviting a cascade of unintended consequences. The proper conservative reaction is not to imagine a government stripped of public obligations when it comes to the health of citizens. It is to propose an alternative health-care plan that doesn't centralize all power in Washington and that keeps costs down, solves the problem of insuring those with pre-existing conditions, and reduces the number of uninsured.

The real problem in much of American government is not simply that it is too big but rather that it is antiquated, ineffective, and ill-equipped to handle the most basic functions appropriate for a great and modern country. America's education system too often fails to adequately prepare workers for global competition. Our tax code, our physical infrastructure, and our immigration system are badly misaligned with obvious economic needs and desires. Our entitlement system threatens over time to consume the federal budget and undercut other indispensable purposes of government.

Each of these institutions needs to be improved and modernized. Conservatives should offer a menu of structural reforms that do not simply attack government but transform it on conservative terms. And they should connect these reforms to the larger purpose of "the happiness of the people," thus bringing us back full circle to the founders.

Conservatives have accomplished this before. In the 1990s, a cadre of conservative political leaders achieved remarkable success against three seemingly intractable problems: welfare dependency, drug use, and violent crime. They did so not by simply scaling back government's involvement but by implementing better public policies at the federal, state, and local levels. We have already mentioned the 1996 welfare reform, which grew out of ambitious reform efforts by several Republican governors. To take another example, the massive drop in crime from which Americans are still benefiting was attributable to such Republican-initiated policies as an increase in police presence per capita, improvements in policing techniques, the incarceration of dangerous criminals, and measures addressing urban disorder and vandalism. [...]

The eminent political scientist James Q. Wilson summarized this political reality in a single sentence: "Telling people who want clean air, a safe environment, fewer drug dealers, a decent retirement, and protection against catastrophic medical bills that the government ought not to do these things is wishful or suicidal politics." Seconding Wilson, Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, recently noted that the "government social safety net for the truly indigent is one of the greatest achievements of our society....We have to declare peace on the safety net." Providing such services and securing that safety net does not mean accepting the technocratic mindset of the liberal welfare state. It means replacing that mindset with a conservative approach that puts government on the side of civil society and private enterprise in order to achieve a more just and thriving society.

Conservatives are more likely to be trusted to run the affairs of the nation if they show the public that they grasp the purposes of government, that they fully appreciate it is in desperate need of renovation, and that they know what needs to be done. The American people are deeply practical; they are interested in what works. And they want their government to work. Conservatives know how institutions can and should work in our free society, and they can apply that knowledge to government.

Homestead Act (Lincoln's Legacy)

Lincoln signed the Homestead Act on May 20, 1862. Ten percent of the United States, or 275,000,000 acres of land, were given to settlers under this act. Between 1879 and 1886, more than 100,000 people settled in northern Dakota. To claim 160 acres of free land, a man or woman had to be head of a household and 21 years old. The homesteader had to pay an $18 filing fee and live on the homestead for 5 years. The law required that they build a house, measuring at least 10' x 12', and have at least 10 acres of land under cultivation. Immigrants from foreign lands were required to become U.S. citizens in order to claim land.

Posted by at January 9, 2014 5:00 PM

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