The perversion of “government of the people, by the people, for the people”

One hundred and fifty years ago on 19th November at Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln articulated a powerful piece of rhetoric. A description of government in a “free” society which in the context of his time was bold and visionary. Probably the two most quoted phrases in his address are “the proposition that all men are created equal” and his closing “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth”

Yet it is precisely these two powerful phrases of rhetoric which 150 years later, in the world as it exists today, are leading to a perversion of behaviour which is antithetical to his intentions.

The first basic perversion comes from Lincoln’s blunder in stating that “all men are created equal” when what he really should have said was “all humans shall be treated equally”. In fact Pericles funeral oration, which Lincoln is thought to have used as a source gets it more correctly “If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences”. Pericles confined himself to behaviour and did not bring creation into it.

Lincoln was addressing behaviour not genetics. “Equality” is – or should be – an  issue of man’s behaviour to man – not of our make-up or of our inherent qualities or failings at the time of our births. It is indisputable that at birth all humans are not “equal” and we have the privilege to be different and therefore individual. Our genes differ – thank goodness. Without such a variation in a species natural selection has no role and evolution is impossible. Physically and mentally and in the environment we are born into, we are not equal. No doubt our development as we grow up is widely different and fundamentally affected by the manner in which we are brought up, educated and the resources made available to us. But nurture does not  – and can not – replace nature. Legislation or wishing will not alter your genes. You can legislate for providing special education for the less intelligent or for special medical care for those born physically or mentally disadvantaged, but you cannot create clones of us all – after the event. It is here in trying to address differences of genetics as being inequalities of behaviour that perversion lies. “Afiirmative action” in the US or “reservations” in India are merely euphemisms for selective and intentional discrimination. Inequitable behaviour against some is used as a weapon to try and compensate for the genetic and environmental disadvantages of others. Not always of course, but very often. Legislation in Europe and in Scandinavia for “gender equality” tries to wish away gender differences by – sometimes – enshrining inequitable behaviour against men (usually) to try and compensate for the perceived genetic or environmental disadvantages of women. All around the world legislation intended to ensure the equality of behaviour sometimes tries, instead, to eliminate the genetic or environmental differences between people. Genetic and inherent differences in people cannot be addressed by considering them to be behaviour to be corrected. To be individuals we must first be different and that difference is to be celebrated not eliminated.

It is both a logical and a practical perverison. If in fact we were all created equal then we would all behave equally, we would have no individualism and there would be no issue. Since we are not, in fact, born equal, and it is equitability of behaviour experienced by all that we wish to ensure, then it is perverse to use a legislated, intentional  inequality of behaviour to correct for some other inequality of behaviour.

The second phrase “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth” has become a slogan and an anthem for democracy. Lincoln possibly took this from the 1819  opinion of Chief Justice John Marshall  “The government of the Union then …..  is, emphatically and truly, a government of the people. In form, and in substance, it emanates from them. Its powers are granted by them, and are to be exercised directly on them, and for their benefit.”   There is nothing wrong, I think in either of these two formulations. The perversion of this proposition flows from the fact  that “of the people” is now taken – universally – to mean an equal vote for every individual and a vote for every individual. Even though these individuals making up the “people” are not – and can not – be equal. And it is here – in putting universal suffrage on a pedestal without recourse to merit – that the perversion lies.

The result is that it is mere existence as an individual that suffices to have an “equal vote”. And if everyone has the vote it is assumed that “democracy” has been attained – as if it were some sort of state of grace.  The only real criterion is that of age, even if some countries still have some other criteria in force. The merit of the individual is irrelevant. Votes can and are bought by promises or by free meals or by money or by a bus-ride. A “bought” or coerced vote weighs as heavy as one that is freely given. (There is nothing wrong in buying or selling votes – the flaw lies in that the seller has a vote equal to that of free elector). A fool has the same vote as a wise man. A large tax contributor is equated to a small tax contributor. Government servants paid for by taxes have the same weight of vote as the tax payers. Priests and politicians have the vote. The behaviour of an individual does not affect his vote. Experience, intelligence, wisdom, competence or criminality are all considered equally irrelevant. A majority vote is considered to be the “will of the people” where “constitutions” are supposed to prevent excesses against minorities. But constitutions are subject to the same majority vote. One hundred and one idiots take precedence over one hundred wiser men. And we inevitably get the politicians that universal suffrage deserves. This democracy and its universal suffrage needs also to be tempered by merit. But meritocracy smacks of elitism and no self-respecting socialist could tolerate that.

Universal Suffrage which ignores merit has led to the Lowest Common Factor becoming what counts and not the Highest Common Multiple that is being sought. And that was not, I think , what Lincoln intended.

But all that does not diminish the importance and brilliance of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. It is as powerful today as it was when I first read, learned and recited it over 50 years ago. But, in contradiction to his words, The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here”it is what he said there that is remembered much more than what was done there:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth

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