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Liberty and Responsibility; Lincoln's balance point

Last edited - 08 Feb 19

Abraham Lincoln is one of history's preeminent practitioners of liberalism, yet most of those who claim the title 'liberal' would revile him with as much energy as the Confederates who declared war against him in 1861.

The reason for this hatred remains the same today as it was then and can be examined through examining his thoughts on liberty, and the demands they require of truly free citizens in a truly free society.

Chief among these demands is the concept of individual responsibility.  Inherent in the concept of freedom is the idea that the individual has control over their own destiny and that they have responsibility for the successes and failures resulting from them exercising that freedom.  However, such freedom, or 'liberty' as it's classically referred to, requires a delicate balancing act.


Abraham Lincoln referred to this balance in the following statement:


‘The twin dangers to liberty were tyranny on one extreme and anarchy, or “licentiousness” on the other.  Licence was the abuse of liberty, the aggressive exercise of liberty without restraints imposed by a regard for the rights and liberties of others.’[1]

You'll recognise this quote from the article on the political spectrum, demonstrating Lincoln's astute understanding of the primary axis of individual political motivation.  Thomas Jefferson's letter to James Maddison a over a half century before made essentially the same point. What you may not have considered is what both tyranny and anarchy offer the individual; a mechanism by which they can trade in freedom (liberty) in exchange for an abdication of personal responsibility.


"The probability that we may fall in the struggle ought not to deter us from the support of a cause we believe to be just."

"The struggle of today is not altogether for today--it is for a vast future also."

"You must remember that some things legally right are not morally right."

What both anarchy (the extreme right wing) and tyranny (the extreme left wing) both offer is a an escape from personal responsibility.  

In the case of anarchy (or 'licentiousness' in the 19th century vernacular), an individual abdicates responsibility for having to consider the rights and needs of anyone else.  The result is Thomas Hobbs' 'State of Nature' which describes a war of all against each other.  In the pre-Lincoln US, the 'social contract' left insufficient government, leaving room for one group to suspend the liberties of another in the pursuit of their own personal self-interest.

In the case of tyranny, an individual abdicates responsibility for themselves, surrendering their liberty in the process.  All corporate entities in a concentrated environment (monopolies, duopolies, oligopolies, cartels, etc), whether they are businesses, religious hierarchies, labour unions, professional bodies, trades guilds or governments, tend toward corruption.  Without external forces to restrain the self-interest of those at the top of the hierarchy, the corporate entity becomes self-serving with its interests being defined by the self-interest of the individual or small group at the top.

So, as Lincoln realised, true liberty can only exist when a society is structured so that an individual is extended the greatest balance of responsibility for both themselves and those in their community.  When a society straddles this 'fine line' between anarchy and tyranny, the corrupting influence of individual or group self-interest is held to a minimum and government is restrained to the role of defending individual rights and liberties for the greatest benefit of all in society.

The constant dialogue and negotiation required to strike and maintain this balance as environmental conditions change, which they inevitably do over time, describes the core ethos behind liberalism and a free, or 'liberal', society.

John Locke opined that the primary role of government was the protection of 'life, liberty and property' and the just mediation between conflicts within society.  When a government became tyrannical, 'exercising power beyond right', it was both the right and duty of citizens to overthrow it.  Restraining the core role of government in such a fashion describes one of the most profound, complex and philosophically advanced political idea in human history.  

So, in a truly liberal society, the government's duty is to restrict the individual citizen's potential to violate the rights and liberties of fellow citizens and the citizen's duty is to shoulder the responsibility of restraining government from violating the rights and liberties of the citizens.  A truly advanced, or 'progressive' (if that word hadn't been hijacked by regressive ideologues) society contains mechanisms by which both duties are enabled and neither the citizens, nor the government, obtains a monopoly on the tools of power.

When a government is 'exercising power beyond right', a liberal society is under threat.  When a government takes it upon themselves to legislate away the individual citizen's ability to effectively defend themselves from criminal activity or government oppression, Lincoln's 'twin dangers to liberty . . . ' have become a reality.

On the 12th of March 1938, National Socialist Germany annexed Austria.  This completed the 'Anschluss' or 'Joining' of the German populations of Germany and Austria.  Whilst the Anschluss was a popular idea in both Germany and Austria for several decades before this event, many Austrians were less supportive of the National Socialist government that made it happen.  Almost immediately, the Nazis suspended the civil liberties of over 10% of the eligible voting population of Austria, closely followed by the suspension of their human rights.  Fearing, probably correctly, that many Austrians would see them as 'exercising power beyond right', the Nazis soon acted to enhance 'public safety' and mandated that all privately owned firearms be stored for 'safekeeping' in with the local police.  Individual citizens could freely go down to the local police station and sign out their rifle to go hunting or target shooting, but effective organized resistance to the Nazis was rendered extremely difficult.  A monopoly on the tools of military force was established.

The duty of free citizens to restrain government tyranny is extremely difficult if a government is allowed to obtain a monopoly on military force.  The Swiss have institutionalised the 'citizen militia' into their culture in order to guarantee individual and collective self-defence is assured.  In the 17th century, the British monarchy affirmed the right of citizens to arm themselves against individual assault and tyrannical government, a right which the Americans formally adopted in their own constitution a century later.

Unfortunately, the experience of the Austrians has been largely forgotten in the west of 2019.  When the Canadian Government, with no evidence to justify their position, pushes forward legislation to restrict long barreled manually-cycled rifles, perhaps even requiring them to be stored in a local police station, while considering an outright ban on pistols and modern semi-automatic rifles, it would be irresponsible for Canadian citizens not to put serious thought into how they, in the future, would exercise their duty to restrain a government 'exercising power beyond right'.

The fine balancing act between anarchy and tyranny is being tilted dangerously to one side by a philosophy rooted in Petainist ideology.  We would be wise to heed Lincoln's call to balance the twin dangers to liberty.


Liberty has always come at a cost, but the cost of anarchy or tyranny have always exceeded the cost of liberty.  Abraham Lincoln would have stood against current trends and we would do well to heed his example.

The abdication of individual responsibility has never turned out well, nor will it ever.

[1] McPherson, James M.  Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution, pp 135

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