William Graham Sumner, Social Darwinist

William Graham Sumner is a more important historical figure than I had realized until recently. According to the Wikipedia article on him

William Graham Sumner (October 30, 1840 – April 12, 1910) was an American academic and “held the first professorship in sociology” at Yale College.[1] For many years he had a reputation as one of the most influential teachers there. He was a polymath with numerous books and essays on American historyeconomic historypolitical theorysociology, andanthropology. He is credited with introducing the term “ethnocentrism,” a term intended to identify imperialists’ chief means of justification, in his book Folkways (1906). Sumner is often seen as a proto-libertarian. He was also the first to teach a course entitled “Sociology”.[1]

In his economics,

Sumner was a staunch advocate of laissez-faire economics, as well as “a forthright proponent of free trade and the gold standard and a foe of socialism.”[1] Sumner was active in the intellectual promotion of free-trade classical liberalism, and in his heyday and after there were Sumner Clubs here and there. He heavily criticized state socialism/state communism. One adversary he mentioned by name was Edward Bellamy, whose national variant of socialism was set forth in Looking Backward, published in 1888, and the sequel Equality’.

I first read about William Graham Sumner in H. W. Brands’ book American Colossus: The Triumph of American Capitalism, 1865-1900. In this passage below (from pages 501-504), it struck me that William Graham Sumner lays out in stark form many arguments that are still very much alive and kicking in the 21st century. See if you agree.

William Graham Sumner … early imbibed the thinking of Charles Darwin, and that of Herbert Spencer when a bit older, and he followed Spencer in believing that Darwin’s theories explained the rise of civilization. Some people were better at the contest of life than others, Spencer and Sumner said; the good ones climbed out of the jungle of savagery and passed their talents to their offspring, who climbed still higher. The sorting took place both among nations, with the industrial powers of Europe and North America having made the greatest progress so far, and within nations, as certain individuals and families accomplished and attained more than the rest. 

Such, to William Sumner, seemed … obvious … and as undeniable as death. Nor were these views especially controversial in America among the kinds of people who encountered Sumner’s essays in the leading journals of the 1880s and 1890s. Religious conservatives–who tended not to read the Forum, the North American Review, Harper’s, and similar fare–disputed anything to do with Darwin, but among the intelligentsia the description provided by Sumner and the other Social Darwinists didn’t elicit inordinate objection.

Sumner's prescriptions were another matter. Sumner argued that attempts to overrule evolution–as by alleviating the plight of the poor–were both immoral and imprudent. “Those whom humanitarians and philanthropists call the weak are the ones through whom the productive and conservative forces of society are wasted,” he declared. “They constantly neutralize and destroy the finest efforts of the wise and industrious, and are a dead-weight on the society in all its struggles to realize any better things.” The do-gooders had made a cottage industry of weeping for the weak. 

They see wealth and poverty side by side. They note great inequality of social position and social chances. They eagerly set about the attempt to account for what they see, and to devise schemes for remedying what they do not like. In their eagerness to recommend the less fortunate classes to pity and consideration, they forget all about the rights of other classes, they gloss over the faults of the classes in question, and they exaggerate their misfortunes and their virtues. They invent new theories of property, distorting rights and perpetuating injustice, as anyone is sure to do who sets about the readjustment of social relations with the interests of one group distinctly before his mind, and the interests of all other groups thrown into the background. When i have read certain of these discussions, I have thought that it must be quite disreputable to be respectable, quite dishonest to own property, quite unjust to go one’s own way and earn one’s own living, and that the only really admirable person was the good-for-nothing.

The reformers, Sumner said, were constantly hatching plans to employ the power of government on behalf of their favored victims. “Their schemes, therefore, may always be reduced to this type–that A and B decide what C shall do for D.” A and B were the reformers; they derived power and self-satisfaction from this arrangement. D, the object of their concern, received material benefits. C, whom Sumner called the “Forgotten Man,” unwillingly supported the others. “We should get a new maxim of judicious living,” Sumner said sarcastically: “Poverty is the best policy. If you get wealth, you will have to support other people; if you do not get wealth, it will be the duty of other people to support you.”

The immorality of freeloading aside, Sumner held that tampering with the social mechanism reduced total welfare. “If any one will look over his dinner table the next time he sits down to dinner, he can see the proofs that thousands of producers, transporters, merchants, bankers, policemen, and mechanics, through the whole organization of society and all over the globe, have been at work for the last year or more to put that dinner within his reach.” All this happened not by accident but by an interlocking set of agreements and expectations evolved over time. Reformers thought they could improve the operation of the social mechanism by bending this lever or adjusting that flywheel; instead they threw the whole thing out of order. 

Rejecting reform, Sumner put his faith in laissez faire. “Let us translate it into blunt English,” he said of the French phrase. “It will read: Mind your own business. It is nothing but the doctrine of liberty. Let every man be happy in his own way.” Sumner didn’t promise paradise. “We never supposed that laissez faire would give us perfect happiness. We have left perfect happiness entirely out of our account.” He would settle for imperfection not made worse by reformers. “If the social doctors will mind their own business, we shall have no troubles but what belong to Nature. Those we will endure or combat as we can. What we desire is that the friends of humanity should cease to add to them.”

Sumner’s philosophy supported domestic capitalism in obvious ways and was often cited to that effect; but it had implications for foreign policy as well. The struggle among humans took sharpest form in war, with the fit inheriting the earth and the meek finding early graves. This had been so from time out of mind, and the onset of industrialization hadn’t changed anything essential. “War has always existed and always will,” Sumner wrote. “It is in the conditions of human existence.” Tribes and nations competed for the resources of the earth, starting with land but extending, in the modern age, to vital minerals, markets for exports, and opportunities for investment. The deft and strong advanced, the rest retreated, and each tear devoted to the losers was water wasted. “The inevitable doom of those who cannot or will not come into the new worlds system is that they must perish. Philanthropy may delay their fate, and it certainly can prevent any wanton and cruel hastening of it; but it cannot avert it, because it is brought on by forces which carry us all along like dust upon a whirlwind.”

Yet Sumner refused to celebrate war, any more than he celebrated famine, pestilence, or other winnowers of the human race. “Shall any statesman … ever dare to say that it would be well, at a given moment, to have a war, lest the nation fall into the vices of industrialism and the evils of peace? The answer is plainly: No! … No war which can be avoided is just to the people who have to carry it on, to say nothing of the enemy. … A statesman who proposes war as an instrumentality admits his incompetency. 

Even so, wars would come whether humans willed them or not. And like the other riders of the apocalypse they left improvement in their wake. "While men were fighting for glory and greed, for revenge and superstition, they were building human society. They were acquiring discipline and cohesion; they were learning cooperation, perseverance, fortitude and patience. … War forms larger social units and produces states. … The great conquests have destroyed what was effete and opened the way for what was viable.