Labor Day Thoughts

“Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.” — Abraham Lincoln

These words, taken from the final paragraphs of Abraham Lincoln’s 1861 State of the Union Address, are often cited on Labor Day to demonstrate that Lincoln elevated the interests of organized labor above those of capitalists. When a friend posted the quote on Facebook this week, I asked him for his take on the quote. His answer was: “…labor came first. People were made to labor. It does our body and soul good. Capitalism came later and now abuses human labor to make huge profits which begat slave labor and now chinese labor. “

Wow.  Is that what Abe was telling us?  I decided to look up the speech so I could read the quote in context, and came away with something completely different.  In the closing portion of his address, Lincoln builds a case against slavery advocates, who were apparently using some convoluted logic to justify slavery by comparing it to paid labor. Lincoln proceeds to dismantle their argument by negating the premise on which it is built:

“It is assumed that labor is available only in connection with capital; that nobody labors unless somebody else, owning capital, somehow by the use of it induces him to labor…And further, it is assumed that whoever is once a hired laborer is fixed in that condition for life.”

Lincoln goes on to point out that there is no such fixed relationship between labor and capital in a free society; they are independent of one another. Physical labor has intrinsic value and should be respected. Capital, on the other hand, is a tool, neither inherently good nor inherently bad.

Lincoln’s underlying message is that unlike slaves, individuals in a truly free society are not stratified into classes. In America, many people work for themselves as farmers, entrepreneurs, and professionals. Some “mingle their own labor with capital”, creating a mixed class. Others start as laborers and become capitalists, something possible only in a free country. Far from condemning capitalism, Lincoln sees the capitalist system as one that improves conditions for everyone.

“The prudent, penniless beginner in the world labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land for himself, then labors on his own account another while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him. This is the just and generous and prosperous system which opens the way to all, gives hope to all, and consequent energy and progress and improvement of condition to all”.

In condemning slavery, Lincoln eloquently makes the case for the freedom of the individual. In this address to the union, he tells us that we should not makes slaves of ourselves by returning to a despotic form of government.

During my lifetime, I’ve done many types of work. I’ve been employed by others as a manual laborer. I’ve been employed by others as a manager of people. I’ve been self-employed, and I’ve even employed other people (so I guess some would say I’m a tiny little capitalist exploiter, abusing human labor to make a profit.) There were times when my choices were limited, but at none of these stages have I considered myself a slave of anyone else. And whether shoveling poop, driving a forklift, calling on clients or sitting behind a desk, I’ve always worked hard.
So when I celebrate Labor Day, I celebrate all productive people. I don’t divide Americans into classes or pit blue collar against white collar. Instead, I thank God that I’ve never forced to work for someone against my will. That’s the message I get from President Lincoln.

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