Freeman

BOOK REVIEW

On Liberty, Society, and Politics: The Essential Essays of William Graham Sumner

An Antidote to Half-Baked Liberal and Socialist Discourse

JANUARY 01, 1994 by JOHN ATTARIAN

Filed Under : Socialism, Protectionism, Special Interests

Few thinkers suffer more at the hands of leftist statists than William Graham Sumner, routinely depicted as a heartless Social Darwinist and a reactionary bigot opposing social reform. Now that the activist government his critics craved has bogged in deficits and failures, Sumner deserves reconsideration.

This collection of 33 of Sumner’s essays, some previously unpublished, facilitates that reappraisal, handily drawing together such important pieces as “The Forgotten Man,” “Republican Government,” “The Argument Against Protective Taxes,” “Liberty,” and “The Absurd Effort to Make the World Over.”

Unbiased reading of Sumner dispels the left’s caricature. In “The Forgotten Man” he does not oppose helping the unfortunate. What he does oppose is glossing over the fact that all aid comes at the expense of the “forgotten man”—the ordinary, thrifty, industrious, virtuous, law-abiding citizen. “Socialism” firmly defends private property—but sharply distinguishes liberty married to responsibility, which Sumner vigorously upholds, from license, which he condemns.

Some essays are especially timely. “Republican Government” warns that in assuming “a high state of intelligence, political sense, and public virtue” in the citizens, republican government demands too much of human nature. “The citizen must know how to obey before he can command, and the only man who is fit to help govern the community is the man who can govern himself.” Our “greatest danger,” though, is from special interests: They are organized and highly motivated, while the people are “ill-informed, unorganized, and more or less indifferent. There is no wonder that victory remains with the interests. Government by interests produces no statesmen, but only attorneys.” Hence, he warns in “Democracy and Plutocracy,” government intervention against business is unwise. Reformers will not wield government power forever; business will seek that power in self-defense, and resort to “all the vices of plutocracy,” corrupting both business and government. All too true.

Repeatedly, Sumner argues that capital accumulation makes civilization possible. What harms capital drags down civilization. Our overregulation and tax-borrow-and-spend dissipation of capital and their harmful impact on our national life make Sumner again look far wiser than his critics.

“The Argument Against Protective Taxes” demolishes arguments for tariffs and exposes the heart of protectionism—indeed, of all redistribution:

A wants protection, that is, he wants B‘s money. B does not want to let him have it. A talks sentiment and metaphysics . . . all there is in it is that he wants B‘s money. . . . He is then moved to scorn at B‘s sordid love of money . . . . For him to want B‘s money is patriotic. It is “developing our resources.” It is noble. For B to want to keep the same money is mean. I insist upon the matter being stated in the most crass and vulgar way, just because that is all there is of it when the humbug is all eliminated.

Indeed one suspects that the real reasons for the left’s animosity toward Sumner are his intolerance of humbug and sloppy thinking and his commonsensical, tough-minded insistence on hard truths: “There is no such thing on this earth as something for nothing”; “advantages are won at the cost of limitations”; imaginations must submit to facts. For Sumner, “the social order is fixed by laws of nature”; attempts to evade them are doomed and harmful. The schemes of socialists and other reformers are actually revolts against a reality unmindful of their yearnings. “They say that political economy is a dismal science and that its doctrines are dark and cruel. I think the hardest fact in life is that two and two cannot make five.”

Unfortunately, Sumner’s realism is rooted in philosophical materialism: an economic determinism as relentless as that of Marx and Engels. Drawing on Malthus, he argues that all social life derives from the ratio of population to land. A sparse population makes for democracy, peace, and prosperity; a dense population breeds land hunger, war, inequality, and aristocracy. In his materialism he sometimes manifests contempt for ideas; doctrines are “Nothing but rhetoric and phantasms”; ideals are “phantasms” with “no basis in fact.” And, having exploded the facile doctrine of inevitable progress, and lapsed from his early Christianity, the materialist Sumner has nowhere left to go except into pessimism; and the last, prophetic essays ooze gloom.

But if Sumner misses the Christian hope that Parson Malthus held out in his much misunderstood theory of population, he has tremendous merits nonetheless. His hard-headed realism is an all-too-rare antidote to the half-baked wishful thinking pervading liberal and socialist discourse. His unbending integrity makes him brave enough to denounce the wildly popular Spanish-American War (“The Conquest of the United States by Spain”) and to uphold liberty against the tide of statism. This volume is an excellent introduction to a keen, vigorous, and courageous mind. Its valuable foreword, judicious selection of essays, and reasonable price make it ideal for reaching the large audience Sumner deserves. []

John Attarian is a freelance writer in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with a Ph.D. in economics.

ASSOCIATED ISSUE

January 1994

comments powered by Disqus

EMAIL UPDATES

* indicates required

CURRENT ISSUE

December 2014

Unfortunately, educating people about phenomena that are counterintuitive, not-so-easy to remember, and suggest our individual lack of human control (for starters) can seem like an uphill battle in the war of ideas. So we sally forth into a kind of wilderness, an economic fairyland. We are myth busters in a world where people crave myths more than reality. Why do they so readily embrace untruth? Primarily because the immediate costs of doing so are so low and the psychic benefits are so high.
Download Free PDF

PAST ISSUES

SUBSCRIBE

RENEW YOUR SUBSCRIPTION

Essential Works from FEE

Economics in One Lesson (full text)

By HENRY HAZLITT

The full text of Hazlitt's famed primer on economic principles: read this first!


By FREDERIC BASTIAT

Frederic Bastiat's timeless defense of liberty for all. Once read and understood, nothing ever looks the same.


By F. A. HAYEK

There can be little doubt that man owes some of his greatest suc­cesses in the past to the fact that he has not been able to control so­cial life.


By JEFFREY A. TUCKER

Leonard Read took the lessons of entrepreneurship with him when he started his ideological venture.


By LEONARD E. READ

No one knows how to make a pencil: Leonard Read's classic (Audio, HTML, and PDF)