Lincoln on Property Rights

“Each time there is a conflict between the rights of man and the rights of property, the rights of man must prevail.” — Abraham Lincoln
Ron said…

Lincoln didn’t think this one through.

Property rights and human rights are inextricably intertwined for the simple reason that the most valuable property any man can own is his own body, his own labor and the fruits thereof.

The ability of the state or society to alienate man from property is the creation of slavery.

As an unabashed hero-worshiper of Lincoln – his portrait shared a place of honor on my grandparents’ mantle with that of George Washington, and the first books I loved as a kid were about him and King Arthur, if you don’t count Five Little Firemen – I may not be unbiased. But I think that if you examine what Lincoln said in context, you’ll find on the one hand that he did think this through, and on the other, that he and Ron might not fundamentally disagree.

Lincoln did not despise property rights. On the contrary, he valued them. In fact, one of the reasons he hated slavery so much was that it endangered the legitimate property rights of free men by giving an unfair advantage to those who immorally exploited other human beings over those who did not.

Lincoln’s whole career as a lawyer was devoted to protecting property rights. As President, he helped pass the Homestead Act, so that hitherto property-less people could, by their sweat equity, gain the chance to own property. Showing this concern didn’t apply just to the little guy, he also helped put through legislation vesting considerable property rights in railroads willing to push West.

(Before he was president, as a lawyer for railroads, Lincoln knocked heads with my own lawyer grandcestor who was concerned about the competing property rights of steamship companies concerned over building of bridges over rivers, but that’s another story. Lincoln won that fight, by the way.)

What Lincoln said was, WHEN the two conflict, human rights come first. In other words, when someone claims to make another man his property, and to make that man’s rights to be free take second place to his own right to ownership.

But far from seeing the two as inevitably in conflict, Lincoln saw them as going together.

To my mind, the traditional free-market economy approach of Lincoln’s party, far from being a betrayal of Lincoln, is exactly what he espoused. Lincoln opposed slavery precisely BECAUSE it was opposed to a free economy. He was concerned FIRST AND FOREMOST with HUMAN freedom, but, like Ron, he recognized that human and economic freedom go together – so that a white small farmer, as well as a black slave, was hurt by slavery.

Logically, Lincoln’s position would separate him from EXTREME free-market advocates who would support the right, for example, to exploit child labor, or to sell impure and life-threatening drugs, or to destroy someone else’s business unfairly by criminal conduct.

By the way, reforms to curb those abuses were instituted by the REPUBLICAN Party, and to my mind consistently with its free market orientation.

Freedom DOES occasionally require intervention to keep it from being destroyed by those with no respect for OTHERS’ freedom, which is why King Arthur was my other early hero (even if he was largely myth).

“The right of your fist ends where the right of my nose begins.” As true in economic life as elsewhere.

Lincoln was no communist, or even a socialist. As a matter of fact, in many ways, he was a conservative, though the real term to describe him is a “liberal” in the classic Nineteenth Century sense still used in most of the world outside the United States – someone who believed in freedom, political and economic, both.

Human rights take precedence over property rights? Absolutely, from the conflict between the right of Pharaoh to the pyramids and the right of Hebrews to freedom, down to the conflict between the right of women in some Middle Eastern countries to choose their own life versus the right of men who claim to own them as property.

Human rights are possible WITHOUT property rights? Absolutely NOT, whether it is Stalin’s communists who try to keep a kulak from owning a farm, or a plantation owner who tries to keep someone from owning ANYTHING.

Lincoln saw that property rights are a facet of human rights. Because you can’t have the effect if you destroy the cause, Lincoln, in extreme cases where it was necessary to choose between the two, chose to preserve human rights, without which property rights ultimately would have died as well. But in doing so, he wanted to preserve property rights, ultimately, too.

His fundmanental principle was that we all have the right to our labor, and the fruits of it. He was right.

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