Paul W. Barada
I recently received a wonderful book called, simply enough, “Lincoln Speeches,” edited by Richard Beeman, who is the John Welsh Centennial Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania. Some of his grants and awards include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, and the Huntington Library.
With the national election just a few days away, Professor Beeman’s comments in his introduction to the volume on Lincoln’s speeches seem providentially appropriate. He writes: “A[n] important theme that emerges from [this volume]…involves the age-old debate on how and where to strike the best balance between public order and personal liberty. For most of human history, those who held government power – kings or emperors or czars – usually dealt with that issue by ruthlessly imposing their own definition of what was good for the masses of people whom they governed. When Thomas Paine published his earth-shaking pamphlet ‘Common Sense’ in January 1776, his primary purpose was to persuade the American colonists to throw off British rule, but one of the key elements in his argument was the notion that while every society needs some from of government in order to provide security and protect the freedom of its citizens, the best and freest societies are those in which government is least intrusive. In Paine’s words: ‘Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one.’ Paine’s words struck a chord with his American readers, who were already suspicious of the overly powerful, distant government of Great Britain, and the Declaration of Independence, approved seven months later, reinforced that same theme. The distrust of concentrations of government power – the notion that government, while necessary, must be restrained – is deeply rooted in America’s revolutionary past, and, of course, is very much alive today, as we can observe by the vitality of the political movements such as the Tea Party.
“As powerful as Paine’s and Jefferson’s indictments of excessive British power may have been, they did not provide the answer to the question of how the independent American nation could create a government that would strike an ideal balance between order and liberty. The men who gathered in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 to frame a new constitution for their still-fragile independent nation took a giant step forward in providing an answer when they created a governmental system based on the division of power between the individual states and the central government - the system that we now call federalism – and by further dividing power among the three branches of the federal government – in a system that we characterize as one of ‘checks and balances.’”
Lincoln, of all our presidents, before and since, was a staunch believer in the principles laid out in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and the Bill of Rights. No president has held more sacred the founding documents upon which every American was guaranteed the most important right of all, freedom.
On many occasions Lincoln cited Jefferson’s immortal words from the Declaration: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” But Lincoln also understood that the notion of equal rights was not the same thing as equal outcomes.
No one, least of all Lincoln, would have argued with the idea that, “all men are created equal” could be expanded to mean that a role of the federal government was to guarantee equal outcomes for everyone. Even Lincoln would not have contended that insuring equal outcomes was, by any stretch of the notion of federalism, the job of the national government.
For the sake of relevance, however, let’s bring the concept down to the modern day. People occasionally argue, for example, that if they have the same job title as another employee, they should receive the same pay; this, incidentally, has nothing at all to do with equal pay for women doing the same job as a man, but it has everything to do with the broader notion of the “right” to an equal outcome.
Here’s a quote from a recent HR publication that spells out the equality issues involved in the employment arena: “At my company, we don’t fire people who share salary information, although we discourage it. People often inflate their salaries when they gossip at the water cooler, and someone will think they are grossly underpaid. No good ever comes of this. They don’t consider these things: The other person lied about their salary; even if they didn’t lie, the other person has credentials, experience, accomplishments and other skills that warrant a higher salary; they are long-timers and earn more due to outstanding performance; they do more than the job requires, and the complainer does nothing more than the basics.”
The upcoming election is a referendum of sorts, not on the general principle of equality of opportunity, but on whether or not we want a government that enforces, or tries to enforce, equal outcomes. That’s what the election is really about and the outcome is up to us.
That’s –30— for this week.