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Ten commandments of common sense

The "legendary" words of Abraham Lincoln about the strong and the weak and the dangers of debt were never spoken by him. They were not written until long after his assassination by a preacher of German descent. But they have retained their validity in their practical dimension.

Gerhard Schwarz
Den Schwachen ist nicht geholfen, wenn die Starken geschwächt werden. (Wilfredo Rafael Rodriguez Hernandez, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons)
The weak are not helped if the strong are weakened. (Wilfredo Rafael Rodriguez Hernandez, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons)


As the focus of my column today is a text that wasn’t written by me, some will say: he’s taking the easy way out. Perhaps they will be lenient because of the festive season. But that would be a malicious insinuation. This column has always been about regulatory policy.

Set a framework – do not intervene

I occasionally encounter the misunderstanding that this is synonymous with law and order, with the rigorous enforcement of internal security. In fact, the term “regulatory policy” encompasses something quite different, namely an understanding of the state that assigns it a very restrained role. It should only set a general framework in the economy and society that applies to everyone and not intervene selectively or in favor of individual groups.

The concept was coined by economists and lawyers and often seems somewhat anemic due to its academic roots. This cannot be said of the following text. Although it is not a regulatory pamphlet in the true sense of the word, it speaks to the hearts of many regulatory politicians, especially in view of the current attacks on the debt brake.

Wrongly attributed

For a long time, the text was attributed to Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States of America, who was assassinated in 1865 (at the age of 56). However, it was written by a Presbyterian religious leader, William John Henry Boetcker, who was born in Hamburg in 1873. His Ten Commandments (“The Ten Cannots”) were published in 1916 and falsely attributed to Lincoln in 1942. There are several traditions and translations. My version reads:

  1. You cannot achieve prosperity if you do not exhort thrift.
  2. You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong.
  3. You cannot help the little man by destroying the great.
  4. You cannot help those who earn a wage by ruining those who pay it.
  5. You cannot help the poor by wiping out the rich.
  6. You cannot create solid security by going into debt.
  7. You cannot create brotherhood by fomenting class hatred.
  8. You cannot solve your difficulties by spending more than you take in.
  9. You cannot inspire commitment to public affairs and enthusiasm if you deprive the individual of his initiative and independence.
  10. You cannot help people permanently if you do for them what they could and should do for themselves.

Of course, you can hear the preacher here, some things sound old-fashioned, many things are simplified, some things are said several times. For example, the warning against debt and the emphasis that the economy is not a zero-sum game were particularly close to Boetcker’s heart, as were Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, who quoted these “commandments” approvingly. But overall, they express a very fresh liberal-conservative set of values that could simply be described as common sense – then as now.

Translated with DeepL