Was Lincoln's quote about government hypocritical?

Toward the end of his State of the Union speech, President Obama quoted Abraham Lincoln: "government should do for people only what they cannot do better by themselves, and no more.” But Lincoln was among history's most aggressive expanders of the reach of the federal government.

Mindy Schauer/AP/Orange County Register/File
A President Lincoln impersonator gives his famous "Gettysburg Address" during the Knott's Berry Farm Civil War Encampment in this file photo. Lincoln's famous quote about the role of government, which President Obama quoted in his SOTU speech, is hypocritical, Galles argues.

Toward the end of his State of the Union speech, President Obama said “I believe what Republican Abraham Lincoln believed: That government should do for people only what they cannot do better by themselves, and no more.” Apparently, he didn’t note the immense irony of those words on the lips of one of American history’s most aggressive expanders of the scope and reach of the federal government, or the cognitive dissonance between that claim and the preceding substantial laundry list of things he wanted to do for (and to) Americans.

But the huge gap between the Presidents limited government words and his expansive government actions shows how limited is the power of such words to constrain centralized power and control. Ritual obeisance to the rhetoric can simply be combined with inconsistent behavior, and his inflation of government even further past any defensible claim of advancing the general welfare is defined out of existence.

Fortunately, this issue has already been considered. In his 1969 Let Freedom Reign, Leonard Read wrote about a loophole in the limited government formulation that now allows President Obama to eviscerate any such limitation. His depressingly current chapter on “Governmental Discipline” merits careful consideration.

 During the last century, several of the best American academicians and statesmen — in an effort to prescribe a theory of governmental limitation — have agreed: The government should do only those things which private citizens cannot do for themselves, or which they cannot do so well for themselves.

[T]his is meant to be a precise theory of limitation…

The government should, indeed, do some of the things which private citizens cannot do for themselves…Codifying and enforcing an observation of the taboos gives the citizenry a common body of rules which permits the game to go on; this is what a formal agency of society can do for the citizens that they cannot, one by one, do for themselves… And no more!

This proposal…does not go far enough. It has a loophole, a “leak,” through which an authoritarian can wiggle

What they [citizens] will not do and, therefore, “cannot” do for themselves is to implement all the utopian schemes that enter the minds of men, things that such schemers think the citizens ought to do but which the citizens do not want to do…”only” is utterly meaningless!

Reflect on the veritable flood of taboos — against other than destructive actions — now imposed on the citizenry by federal, state, and local governments. And all in the name of doing for the people what they “cannot” do for themselves. In reality, this means doing for them what they do not wish to do for themselves.

How might we state this idea, then, in a way that…if followed, would restore government to its principled, limited role — keep it within bounds? Consider this: The government should do only those things, in defense of life and property, which things private citizens cannot properly do each man for himself.

The only things private citizens cannot properly do for themselves is to codify all destructive actions and prohibit them…Neither the individual citizen nor any number of them in private combination…can property write and enforce the law. This is a job for government; and it means that the sole function of a government is to maintain law and order, that is, to keep the peace…a task much neglected when government stops out of bounds.

All else — an infinity of unimaginable activities — is properly within the realm of personal choice: individuals acting cooperatively, competitively, voluntarily, privately, as they freely choose. In a nutshell , this amended proposal charges government with the responsibility to inhibit destructive actions — its sole competency — with private citizens acting creatively in any way they please.

The government is engaged in countless out of bounds activities…what private citizens will not do rather than something they cannot do…

[W]e allow government to commandeer resources that private citizens will not voluntarily commit to such purposes. In other words, private citizens are forced to do things they do not wish to do.

Why are private citizens forced to do what they do not wish to do? After all, the formal coercive agency of society — is their agency!

We have one test, and one only, for what private citizens really wish to do: those things they will do voluntarily!

But here’s the rub: There are those who believe we do not know all the things we want or, at least, are unaware of what is good for us. These “needs” invented for us…have no manner of implementation except by coercion. In a word, these people who would be our gods can achieve the ends they have in mind for us only as they gain control of our agency of force: government.

And the primary reason why they can force upon us those things we do not want is our lack of attention to what are the proper bounds of government.

By asserting his devotion to limited government in his State of the Union address, President Obama seems to be trying to blunt criticism of how untrue that statement is. He mouths the same words as those who are truly concerned about limiting over-reach of government, but he clearly means something else than they do. It reminds me of some other words of Abraham Lincoln:

We all declare for liberty, but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor. Here are two, not only different but incompatible things.

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