Lincoln Unbound: How an Ambitious Young Railsplitter Saved the American Dream — and How We Can Do It Again by Rich Lowry (HarperCollins 2013), 390 pages.
One of the central themes in James Scott’s Seeing Like a State is the ideology he calls “authoritarian high modernism”:
It is best conceived as a strong (one might even say muscle-bound) version of the beliefs in scientific and technical progress that were associated with industrialization in Western Europe and in North America from roughly 1830 until World War I. At its center was a supreme self-confidence about continued linear progress, the development of scientific and technical knowledge, the expansion of production, the rational design of social order, the growing satisfaction of human needs, and, not least, an increasing control over nature (including human nature) commensurate with scientific understanding of natural laws. High modernism is thus a particularly sweeping vision of how the benefits of technical and scientific progress might be applied — usually through the state — in every field of human activity. If, as we have seen, the simplified, utilitarian descriptions of state officials had a tendency, through the exercise of state power, to bring the facts into line with their representations, then one might say that the high-modern state began with extensive prescriptions for a new society, and it intended to impose them.
Scott’s high-modernist Hall of Fame would include “Henri Comte de Saint-Simon, Le Corbusier, Walther Rathenau, Robert McNamara, Robert Moses, Jean Monnet, the Shah of Iran, David Lilienthal, Vladimir I. Lenin, Leon Trotsky, and Julius Nyerere.” It is inexplicable that he left out Abraham Lincoln.
As described by National Review editor Rich Lowry,
From his first stirrings as a politician, Lincoln committed himself to policies to enhance opportunity. He wanted to build canals and railroads to knit together the nation’s markets. He wanted to encourage industry. He wanted to modernize banking. He hated isolation, backwardness, and any obstacles to the development of a cash economy of maximal openness and change. He thrilled to steam power and iron, to invention and technology, to the beneficent upward spiral of a commercial economy. With Emerson, he celebrated “men of the mine, telegraph, mill, map, and survey.”
As with other authoritarian high modernizers, Lincoln’s vision of the society he wanted to build implied an aversion to the society it would replace. In many ways his father, Thomas Lincoln, symbolized everything he wanted to eradicate from American society. William Herndon’s bookHerndon’s Lincoln includes descriptions of Thomas such as the following:
[Thomas] was happy — lived Easy — & contented. Had but few wants and Supplied these.
He was a man who took the world Easy — did not possess much Envy. He never thought that gold was God.
Well, you see, he was like the other people in this country. None of them worked to get ahead…. The people raised just what they needed.
Everything Lincoln hated about his family and those like them — their lack of ambition, working only when they felt like it and then stopping when they had just enough to get by, et cetera — echoes how the industrious gentleman farmers of 18th-century Britain felt about cottagers who lived off their common pasturage rights and access to the common fens and woods. And it foreshadowed Lenin’s contempt for the shiftlessness and backwardness of the Russian peasantry.
The “bourgeois virtues” Lowry finds so admirable in Lincoln’s agenda were also the heart of the rationalist westernizing ethos Len-in sought to inculcate in Russians:
From his youth, he exemplified a middle-class morality at the core of the Whig and the Republican ethic. Self-control and self-improvement, rationality and abstemiousness were the necessary personal ingredients to economic advancement. Lincoln hewed to these qualities and evangelized for them.
Lincoln was a direct descendant of the modernizing Puritans of the 17th century, who banned the large number of saints’ days on which peasants previously rested and celebrated, and imposed the Calvinist Sabbath on what had been a day of games and enjoyment.
So naturally there is no small element of cognitive dissonance entailed in Lowry’s professed fondness for markets and his dislike of “dependence on government.” He sees the corporate economy of our day, at least in its broad outlines, as a logical outgrowth of Lincoln’s vision, and one Lincoln would very likely embrace if he saw it today.
It is the dense, creative commercial network that he imagined, but on steroids — a heavily urbanized population of more than 300 million, robustly democratic yet highly educated and technologically proficient, featuring some of the most innovative companies in the world.
Lowry, like Lincoln, may be fond of business — but he is no friend of the market as such. The market — like all of human society — is for him mere raw material, to be forced, by the transformative will of progressive-minded people like himself running the state, into the cash nexus to whatever extent he finds aesthetically pleasing. That means today, as it meant in Lincoln’s — as it meant in Britain during the Enclosures, and in Russia under Pyotr Stolypin and Lenin — the use of raw political power to override individual preferences.
Whether he admits it or not, what Lowry favors is not freedom or markets as such, but the promotion of his vision of “progress”: the expansion of the cash nexus, firm size, market areas, and division of labor far beyond the natural levels that would be set by market forces alone. And with Lincoln, he detests — as such — the homemade, the nonmonetized, the informal, and all forms of production for direct consumption. (Lowry explicitly equates the ratio of subsistence production to production for the market and reliance on homemade goods with the level of backwardness.) Like Lincoln, Lowry celebrates the use of the modernizing state to force people out of such activity — much as the English capitalist farmers and mill owners of 200 years ago celebrated the use of state power to drive the rural population from independent subsistence into the wage market like wild beasts.
If that sounds like hyperbole, consider this quotation from Lowry himself: “The extension of modern transportation networks would take a sledgehammer to the subsistence economy of Lincoln’s youth. It would make it obsolete, impossible even.”
The American — like the global — corporate economy lives, moves, and has its being in dependence on government. It is a creature of the state and is sustained in its existence every instant by the ongoing support of the state. Lowry surely knows that.
It is Lincoln’s legacy economy itself which has rendered Americans “dependent” — dependent not just on government, but just plain dependent. Dependent on big government, big business, wage employment, and the cash nexus.
And despite what Lowry believes, none of that was ever necessary from a standpoint of objective, immaculate, ideologically neutral “efficiency.” Rather, the economy that Lincoln built compelled the average person to work harder than necessary to achieve a given level of consumption. The forms of centralized, capital- and management-intensive, high-overhead production he fostered suppressed or crowded out more-efficient forms of production that would have otherwise very likely evolved naturally — the integration of electrically powered machinery into decentralized, local craft production, in which workers would have far more control over the conditions under which they produced, and economic progress strengthened community rather than destroying it.
The economy that emerged from the railroad land grants and bond issues, high industrial tariffs and patents of the Gilded Age, far from being tantamount to “technological progress,” was not even the best way to integrate new technology such as electrical-power generation and electrically powered machinery into production. Writers such as Pyotr Kropotkin celebrated the possibilities of electrical power for destroying the primary ration-ale for the large factory: the need to economize on power from prime movers by running as many machines as possible off belts from the drive shaft on a single steam engine. The electric motor meant that a prime mover could be built into each machine; hence the machines could be sited as close as possible to the point of consumption, the machines scaled to the flow of production, and the flow of production itself scaled to demand on a lean, just-in-time basis. Lincoln’s “internal improvements” and other subsidies to centralization instead tipped the balance toward the kind of economy described by Alfred Chandler in The Visible Hand: an economy of extremely expensive, product-specific machinery that had to be run full-speed 24/7 to minimize unit costs from idle capacity. That in turn required a coercive social mechanism of high-pressure marketing, mass advertising, and planned obsolescence to guarantee the consumption of waste production.
And despite Lincoln’s quite genuine belief in the fundamental right to eat the bread one has produced by his own hand, the corporate economy his Whig agenda gave rise to is more a transgression than a fulfillment of the sentiments he expressed here:
[It] has so happened in all ages of the world, that some have labored, and others have, without labour, enjoyed a large proportion of the fruits. This is wrong, and should not continue. To [secure] each labourer the whole product of his labour, or as nearly as possible, is a most worthy object of any good government.
He denounced “the same old serpent that says you work and I eat, you toil and I shall enjoy the fruits of it.”
But that describes the corporate economy of our day to its very core: monopolies, entry barriers, regulatory cartels, artificial scarcities, artificial property rights — a thousand and one ways in which the landlord eats the fruit of the tenant’s toil, the employer that of the laborer, the usurer that of the borrower, the incumbent business owner that of the would-be competitor, and the bureaucrat that of the taxpayer.
Lowry rightly laments the restoration of segregation and debt-peonage in the South after the end of Reconstruction. He neglects to mention, however, that that retrogression and the Gilded Age model of corporate capitalism were both part of the same grand bargain in 1877. The corporate capitalists secured their uncontested control of the national polity in return for giving Southern Redeemers a free hand in setting up an apartheid system in the South. Having thus secured their southern flank, the northern corporatists directed their attention to a full-scale civil war against farmers and laborers: the post-Haymarket liquidation of the labor movement, the use of the railroads’ state-backed power to break cooperatives, the use of federal troops to break the Pullman Strike, and pitched battles against workers in the Copper and Coal Wars.
All of that had nothing at all to do with genuine free markets and everything to do with using the coercive state to impose a social engineering agenda from the top down.
Good neocon that he is, Lowry also celebrates the meritocratic vision of universalized higher education as the path to success, and decries the tendency of those without high-school degrees to work fewer hours and have more leisure (while the college-educated — the Gallants in this Goofus-Gallant scenario — work increasingly long hours). He ignores — of course! — the whole issue of who decides the relative balance of effort and leisure required for comfortable subsistence, and the level of education required to “get ahead.”
I suspect the idea of a decentralized economy of self-managed neighborhood workshops with people living comfortably on the output of a 20-hour work week, and of an educational system driven by the autonomous needs of self-employed artisans, open-source coders, and permaculturists, rather than by the imperative to process human raw material to the specifications of corporate HR departments, would be anathema to Lowry. So much the worse for him.
Lowry also sees America’s “more assertive” foreign policy from the turn of the 20th century on, and America’s subsequent “influence on the international order,” as a realization of Lincoln’s grandiose dreams of “the spread of liberty to all men.” Anyone familiar with the work of William Appleman Williams, Gabriel Kolko, Noam Chomsky, or William Blum will take a slightly different view of America’s role in the world in the 20th and 21st centuries.
In short, both Lowry and Lowry’s idealized Lincoln are entirely in favor of activist government, so long as it’s “pro-business.” Lowry’s rhetoric of “our free institutions and free economy” is pure buncombe.
This article was originally published in the March 2014 edition of Future of Freedom.