William Graham Sumner’s ‘Forgotten Man’ – Mark Hendrickson

William Graham Sumner (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
William Graham Sumner (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

BY MARK W. HENDRICKSON

This week (Oct. 30 to be precise) marks the 173rd anniversary of the birth of William Graham Sumner (1840-1910). Sumner, one of the founders of American sociology and the first professor of sociology at Yale, wrote an amazingly clear and quotable book entitled, “What Social Classes Owe To Each Other” in 1883. Remarkably, it is completely relevant to today. [Note: You can find the entire text here, courtesy of mises.org. With Sumner’s clarity impossible to improve upon, I will quote frequently from that text, giving the page number and using the italics found in the original.]

Sumner is a largely forgotten man today, but his lesson about “the forgotten man” as a prototype remains timely. According to Sumner, the various political schemes of social reformers, “may always be reduced to this type–that A and B decide what C shall do for D. … In all the discussions attention is concentrated on A and B, the noble social reformers, and on D, the ‘poor man.’ I call C the Forgotten Man, because I have never seen that any notice was taken of him in any of the discussions” (22).

Sumner continues his observations and says, “The State cannot get a cent for any man without taking it from some other man, and this latter must be a man who has produced and saved it. This latter is the Forgotten Man” (108). Later in the book, Sumner states, “It is plain that the Forgotten Man and the Forgotten Woman are the real productive strength of the country” (128-9).

Sumner has no use for muddled collectivist notions, writing, “’Society’ is a fine word, and it saves us the trouble of thinking” (114). With bracing logical rigor, Sumner skewers the sloppy theory of collective guilt: “The French writers of the school of ‘48 used to represent the badness of the bad men as the fault of ‘society.’ As the object of the statement was to show that the badness of the bad men was not the fault of the bad men, and as society contains only good men and bad men, it followed that the badness of the bad men was the fault of the good men” (120).

In regard to “the state,” Sumner writes, “it is not at all the function of the state to make men happy. They must make themselves happy in their own way, and at their own risk” (31). A few pages earlier he notes that, “History is only a tiresome repetition of one story. Persons and classes have sought to win possession of the power of the State in order to live luxuriously out of the earnings of others” (27). Sumner makes another point saying, “A man who is present as a consumer, yet who does not contribute either by land, labor, or capital to the work of society is a burden. On no sound political theory ought such a person to share in the political power of the State” (19).

Sumner offers insight on rights when he says, “If anyone thinks that there are or ought to be somewhere in society guarantees that no man shall suffer hardship, let him understand that there can be no such guarantees, unless other men give them–that is, unless we go back to slavery, and make one man’s effort conduce to another man’s welfare” (57). He also points out that, “Rights do not pertain to results, but only to chances. … to the pursuit of happiness, not to possession of happiness” (141).

On equality Sumner writes that, “… if there be liberty, some will profit by the chances eagerly and some will neglect them altogether. Therefore, the greater the chances the more unequal will be the fortune of these two sets of men. So it ought to be, in all justice and right reason. The yearning after equality is the offspring of envy and covetousness, and there is no possible plan for satisfying that yearning which can do aught else than rob A to give to B; consequently all such plans nourish some of the meanest vices of human nature, waste capital, and overthrow civilization” (145).

He also discusses liberty, writing, “The notion of civil liberty which we have inherited is that of a status created for the individual by laws and institutions, the effect of which is that each man is guaranteed the use of all his own powers exclusively for his own welfare” (30). And “… the product of all history and all philosophy up to this time is summed up in the doctrine, that he should be left free to do the most for himself that he can, and should be guaranteed the exclusive enjoyment of all that he does” (31).

Sumner writes about the importance of entrepreneurs when he says, “Great captains of industry are as rare as great generals” (46). Later, he says that the entrepreneur “contributed … what no one else was able to contribute–the one guiding mind which made the whole thing possible. In no sense whatever does a man who accumulates a fortune by legitimate industry exploit his employés [sic], or make his capital ‘out of’ anybody else. The wealth which he wins would not be but for him” (47).

Writing on various do-gooders, busybodies and social engineers, Sumner says, “For A to sit down and think, What shall I do? is commonplace; but to think what B ought to do is interesting, romantic, moral, self-flattering, and public-spirited all at once. It satisfies a great number of human weaknesses” (97). Then Sumner reminds each of us of a largely forgotten principle (what the Bible called getting the beam out of one’s own eye, and Adam Smith described as the social virtue, “prudence.” Sumner writes, “Every man and woman in society has one big duty. That is, to take care of his or her own self. This is a social duty” (98).

Sumner writes more about would-be reformers, saying, “It no doubt wounds the vanity of a philosopher who is just ready with a new solution of the universe to be told to mind his own business. So he goes on to tell us that if we think that we shall, by being left alone, attain a perfect happiness on earth, we are mistaken. … Under all this lies the familiar logical fallacy, never expressed, but really the point of the whole, that we shall get perfect happiness if we put ourselves in the hands of the world-reformer. We never supposed that laissez faire would give us perfect happiness. We have left perfect happiness entirely out of our account. If the social doctors will mind their own business, we shall have no troubles but what belong to Nature” (105).

There is a lot more timely and timeless wisdom and insight in William Graham Sumner’s “What Social Classes Owe To Each Other,” and I encourage you to check it out.


mark w. hendricksonThe Moral Liberal Contributing Editor, Mark Hendrickson, is Adjunct Professor of Economics at Grove City College, where he has taught since 2004. He is also a Fellow for Economic and Social Policy with The Center for Vision & Values, for which he writes regular commentaries. He is a contributing editor of The St. Croix Review, sits on the Council of Scholars of the Commonwealth Foundation, and writes the weekly “No Panaceas” column in the Op/Ed section of Forbes.com. Mark’s published books include: America’s March Toward Communism (1987); The Morality of Capitalism (editor, 1992); Famous But Nameless: Inspiration and Lessons from the Bible’s Anonymous Characters (2011); and God and Man on Wall Street: The Conscience of Capitalism (with Craig Columbus, 2012). Mark Hendrickson’s Archives at The Moral Liberal.