The Wisdom of William Graham Sumner

WILLIAM Graham Sumner has been described as “The Gilded Age’s most renowned teacher of social science and indefatigable defender of [classical] liberalism.” A follower of Adam Smith and professor of political and social science at Yale for 37 years, he consistently defended the “organic” social order individuals created by their own actions against the “artificial or mechanical” conception of society held by social engineers. Those works include What Social Classes Owe To Each Other (1883), Protectionism: the -Ism Which Teaches That Waste Makes Wealth (1885), The Challenge of Facts and Other Essays (1914), and his most famous book, The Forgotten Man and Other Essays (1918). Given that America has “progressed” much further along a path Sumner recognized and fought against a century ago, it is worth revisiting his insights. In particular, his condemnation of “any scheme which aims to gain, not by the legitimate fruits of industry and enterprise, but by extorting from somebody a part of his product,” expressed in terms of “the forgotten man,” is as important now as it has ever been.

The characteristic of all social doctors is, that they fix their minds on some man or group of men whose case appeals to the sympathies and the imagination, and they plan remedies addressed to the particular trouble … they ignore all the effects on other members of society than the ones they have in view. Now, we never can annihilate a penalty.

We can only divert it from the head of the man who has incurred it to the heads of others who have not incurred it. A vast amount of “social reform” consists in just this operation. Government produces nothing at all … the State cannot get a cent for any man without taking it from some other man. The government gives a license to certain interests to go out and encroach on others. To lift one man up we push another down.

… The beneficiaries are selected by favoritism.… Those who suffer a corresponding depression … are forgotten or passed over; and the friends of humanity once more appear, in their zeal to help somebody, to be trampling on those who are trying to help themselves. The industrious and sober workman, who is mulcted of a percentage of his day’s wages … is the one who bears the penalty. But he is the Forgotten Man … never noticed, because he has behaved himself, fulfilled his contracts, and asked for nothing. There always are two parties. The second one is always the Forgotten Man … he minds his own business, and makes no complaint. Consequently the philanthropists never think of him, and trample on him … the working man needs no improvement in his condition except to be freed from the parasites who are living on him.

The type and formula of most schemes of philanthropy or humanitarianism is this: A and B put their heads together to decide what C shall be made to do for D. The radical vice of all these schemes … is that C is not allowed a voice in the matter, and his position, character, and interests, as well as the ultimate effects on society through C’s interests, are entirely overlooked. The first instinct of modern man is to get a law passed to forbid or prevent what, in his wisdom, he disapproves.

The agents who are to direct the State action are, of course, the reformers and philanthropists. Their schemes, therefore, are always reduced to this type—that A and B decide what C shall do for D. Immense mischief … has been done by sentimental economists and social philosophers who have thought it their professional duty, not to investigate and teach the truth, but to dabble in philanthropy … in pursuit of whims and dreams and impossible desires.

The evils of society are to a great extent the result of the dogmatism and self-interest of statesmen, philosophers, and ecclesiastics who … assumed that they could organize society as they chose.

It is the greatest folly of which a man can be capable, to sit down with a slate and pencil to plan out a new social world.

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