Thursday, July 24, 2008

Krannawitter on Lincoln and Limited Government

This is the second part of my comments on Thomas Krannawitter's Vindicating Lincoln.

The libertarian and paleoconservative critics of Lincoln--people like Thomas DiLorenzo, Charles Adams, Thomas Woods, Walter Williams, Murray Rothbard, and Clyde Wilson--argue that the crucial turn away from limited government and towards modern "big government" came with Lincoln. Following the lead of Harry Jaffa, Krannawitter responds by claiming that Lincoln continued the philosophic and political tradition of limited government coming from the American founding, and that the turn to the modern administrative state that began with the American progressives was a break from Lincoln.

The libertarian and paleoconservative opponents of Lincoln defend the secession of the Southern states as an exercise of a constitutional right essential for limiting the oppressive power of the central government. Therefore, they charge that Lincoln's leadership of the North against the South was an unconstitutional denial of the right of the states to secede.

Krannawitter does a good job of refuting this argument. His main point is the distinction between the natural right to revolution, which Lincoln accepted as stated in the Declaration of Independence, and the legal right of secession, which Lincoln denied. The states of the Confederacy could not justify their actions as an exercise of the natural right of revolution, and therefore they had to appeal to some presumed constitutional right of secession. Krannawitter rightly shows that there is little support for such a legal right of secession under the Constitution as ratified in 1789. In fact, the antifederalist opponents of the Constitution complained that the appeal to "We the People" as the ultimate source of national power deprived the states of their sovereignty. In effect, John C. Calhoun and the other proponents of secession were actually antifederalists who were trying to overturn the Constitution that was ratified in 1789.

The weakest part of Krannawitter's argument is that he passes quickly over Madison's Virginia Resolutions and Jefferson's Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, which provided the primary evidence for Calhoun's position. Krannawitter's claim is that Madison and Jefferson pulled back from this position after the election of 1800. More needs to be said about this.

The leading proponents of the centralized administrative state of the 20th century--Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Croly, Franklin Roosevelt, and others--repeatedly praised Lincoln as pointing the way to the modern expansion of national power. The libertarians and paleoconservatives agree with this rhetorical use of Lincoln for liberal progressivism, but for them, this is a reason to condemn Lincoln as the father of big government.

Krannawitter responds to this by criticizing the progressives for misusing Lincoln, charging that if they had read Lincoln's writings carefully, they would have seen that Lincoln's defense of natural right differed radically from the ideas of historicist progressivism.

Krannawitter agrees that Lincoln led the way to the most massive expansion of federal power in American history up to that point. But he argues that Lincoln understood that this was all a temporary response to the extraordinary emergency of the Civil War that would end with the end of the war. It is true that much of the expansion of federal power under Lincoln was reversed after the war, but Krannawitter leaves the reader wondering why Lincoln should get credit for what happened after his death.

The reader must wonder about this since Krannawitter admits that Lincoln's Whig economic policies--"internal improvements," a national bank, paper currency without backing by gold or silver, and protective tariffs--were not good policies, although these were exactly the policies that the progressives saw as pointing ahead to the administrative state. In the late 1830s, Lincoln supported a massive program of internal improvements in Illinois that led the state government to the edge of financial collapse. Krannawitter prefers to play down Lincoln's economic policies by insisting that after 1854 Lincoln was more concerned with slavery than with economics. But this rhetorical strategy doesn't work if one sees that the issue of slavery was necessarily intertwined with the economic policies associated with "free labor." It might have been better for Krannawitter to compare Lincoln's economic policies with the teachings of Adam Smith and show that most of the governmental policies Lincoln supported--with the exception of protective tariffs--were regarded by Smith as within the proper realm of government.

In my next post, I will take up the debate over Lincoln's exercise of prerogative power.

No comments: