Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Ten Cannots

In 1916, William Boetcker, a Presbyterian reverend, wrote what would later become known as "The Ten Cannots." This list is today usually miscredited to Abraham Lincoln, partly because they seem like something he would have said or written, and partly because they first appeared on a leaflet that had a Lincoln quote on it.

Anyway, my father first introduced these to me years ago and recently felt the need to reread them to me.

These "cannots" are wise, true, and inarguable.

For posterity's sake, here they are:

  1. You cannot bring about prosperity by discouraging thrift.
  2. You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong.
  3. You cannot help the poor man by destroying the rich.
  4. You cannot further the brotherhood of man by inciting class hatred.
  5. You cannot build character and courage by taking away man's initiative and independence.
  6. You cannot help small men by tearing down big men.
  7. You cannot lift the wage earner by pulling down the wage payer.
  8. You cannot keep out of trouble by spending more than your income.
  9. You cannot establish security on borrowed money.
  10. You cannot help men permanently by doing for them what they will not do for themselves.
- William J.H. Boetcker, 1916


  1. The birthplace of your ideology is beginning to present itself. I've noticed that often people who follow the conservative manta don't seem to believe that most of those cannots work in reverse as well as they do in their original order.

    For instance, you cannot lift the wage payer by pulling down the wage earner.

    Posted by Introspective Prophesier on November 19, 2008 - Wednesday - 5:09 PM

  2. Amen!

    Posted by Geoffry on November 18, 2008 - Tuesday - 7:02 PM

  3. I was really liking it until I read that one 'reversal' comment. After that, I kinda felt like the folks at the end of Billy Madison..."...no, and we are all dumber for having listed to that.."

    Then, again, it likely just flew over my head.

    Posted by Cowan on November 20, 2008 - Thursday - 9:17 PM

  4. @IP: Um . . . what, exactly, is a "conservative manta"?

    Posted by Michael on November 20, 2008 - Thursday - 1:52 AM

  5. Funny enough, you're the only person I know who seems to think they have my "ideology" nailed down. Conservative? A little, but definitely not a by-definition conservative. Neither am I a by-definition liberal.

    Your ignorance reveals itself more and more every time you post something, and many find it quite funny. Did you ask what I thought were the "cannots" reversed? No, you didn't, and I personally think the truth of the reverse is implied in the words.

    Let's analyze, shall we?

    1. You cannot discourage prosperity by bringing about thrift. Seems odd, but I'll buy that on a core level.
    2. You cannot weaken the weak by strengthening the strong. Arguable, but fundamentally true.
    3. You cannot destroy the poor man by helping the rich. Also arguable, but fundamentally true (and I'm sure you just love those last two... guess your role-reversal doesn't support your argument as well as you thought... oh, wait, you'd have to put some thought into things first).
    4. You cannot further class hatred by inciting the brotherhood of man. That's a no-brainer.
    5. You cannot take away character by building man's initiative and independence. Also a no-brainer.
    6. You cannot help big men by tearing down small men. Fundamentally true.
    7. (Your favorite, apparently) You cannot lift the wage payer by pulling down the wage earner. Also fundamentally true.
    8. You cannot spend out of trouble by keeping more than your income. That one just doesn't make much sense.
    9. You cannot borrow security on established money. Er...
    10. This reversal advocates a pure welfare state, and I'm sure everybody's against that... liberal or conservative.

    Guess you're wrong... again.

    Posted by JeffScape on November 20, 2008 - Thursday - 1:39 AM

  6. Micah, look at the original phrase:

    "You cannot help men permanently by doing for them what they will not do for themselves."

    This is true. Being human implies as much, and the word "permanently" is very carefully chosen. Had it not been present, one could easily argue the interpretation, but it is present.

    Reversing the statement would read something along the lines of "You can do for someone permanently when they will not help themselves." Where, exactly, in that interpretation is there any implication of specialized labor? I sure don't see it, but what I do see is an endorsement of a welfare state and, like I said earlier, I think only the lazy would advocate that. Admittedly, that particular "cannot" can be reversed in more ways than the other, but the way I read it justifies my earlier statement.

    Posted by JeffScape on November 21, 2008 - Friday - 9:45 PM

  7. Jeff, I didn't say all of them make great literal reversals. For instance, you might consider a reversal:

    1. You cannot bring about prosperity by encouraging thrift. This could arguably cause a recession depending on how you interpret it.

    I was actually making reference to conservative economic policy, which generally touts investors over consumers. If you ask the average person why tax cuts or increases in income for the rich generate jobs, they will tell you because jobs come from rich people investing (or something similar). If you ask them how jobs come from tax cuts or increases in income come to the poor or middle class, they will look at you blankly.

    Investment and consumption are both central parts in economic growth. Emphasizing one and ignoring the other is fatal.

    And there's plenty of ways to look at 10, the fact that you see the reversal as advocating a welfare state shows your ideology. Let's choose a simple daily example. Every day I do specific chores for my fiance, chores she will NEVER do for herself. She does a different set of specific chores for me, chores I will NEVER do for myself. We actually both benefit from this domestic form of specialized labor. You could easily read 10, in its present form, as denouncing specialized labor, a cornerstone of our current form of capitalism.

    Oh, and there's not much reason in you stating that points are arguable in the above examples. Of course they are.

    Posted by Introspective Prophesier on November 21, 2008 - Friday - 8:30 PM

  8. Not sure what you mean. Which reversal comment?

    Posted by JeffScape on November 21, 2008 - Friday - 6:16 AM