The Goal Is Freedom: Laissez-Faire Anti-Imperialism
JULY 27, 2007 by SHELDON RICHMAN
[E]xpansion and imperialism are at war with the best traditions, principles, and interests of the American people, and that they will plunge us into a network of difficult problems and political perils, which we might have avoided, while they offer us no corresponding advantage in return.
These might be the sentiments of a contemporary left-wing intellectual whose notion of America’s traditions, principles, and interests would differ markedly from those held by advocates of the freedom philosophy. But they’re not. They were written 108 years ago by William Graham Sumner (1840-1910), who, if he gets any attention at all, is usually castigated for his evolutionary (Social Darwinist) and laissez-faire views. Sumner, a founder of American sociology and a distinguished professor at Yale University, was an uncompromising champion of economic freedom, unfettered international trade, individual liberty, and limited government. It is fair to say that in his time he was the best-known American exponent of individualist, classical-liberal ideas.
Because he valued those liberty and the institutions that support it, Sumner was deeply concerned with the issues of war, militarism, imperialism, and peace — something for which he gets no credit from those who equate laissez faire with a crude notion of the survival of the fittest. He thus fits into a long line of classical liberals who, to use early FEE staffer F.A. Harper’s term, could be called peace-mongers. They include Frederic Bastiat, Richard Cobden, John Bright, and Herbert Spencer.
Sumner grieved when the United States crossed a key threshold by going to war against Spain in 1898 and acquiring far-flung colonial possessions: the Philippines, Guam, the Caroline Islands, and Puerto Rico. (For background and a discussion of the casus belli, the sinking of the Maine in Havana harbor, click here.) The war lasted only a few months, but the effects rippled outward long afterward. In 1899 the Anti-Imperialist League was organized to protest America’s new colonial role. Among the League’s members were Mark Twain (vice president, 1901-10), laissez-faire businessman Edward Atkinson, and William Graham Sumner (also a vice president). As Wikipedia describes the organization, Many of the League’s leaders were classical liberals and ‘Bourbon Democrats’ (Grover Cleveland Democrats) who believed in free trade, a gold standard, and limited government. Its platform opens with these blunt words:
We hold that the policy known as imperialism is hostile to liberty and tends toward militarism, an evil from which it has been our glory to be free. We regret that it has become necessary in the land of Washington and Lincoln to reaffirm that all men, of whatever race or color, are entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We maintain that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. We insist that the subjugation of any people is criminal aggression and open disloyalty to the distinctive principles of our Government.
We earnestly condemn the policy of the present National Administration in the Philippines. It seeks to extinguish the spirit of 1776 in those islands. We deplore the sacrifice of our soldiers and sailors, whose bravery deserves admiration even in an unjust war. We denounce the slaughter of the Filipinos as a needless horror. We protest against the extension of American sovereignty by Spanish methods.
The reference to America’s adoption of Spanish methods refers to the repression of the Filipino insurrection against U.S. rule after the war. As Wikipedia describes it,
The Philippine-American War was a conflict between the United States of America and the First Philippine Republic from 1899 through at least 1902, when the Filipino leadership generally accepted American rule. Skirmishes between government troops and armed groups lasted until 1913, and some historians consider these unofficial extensions part of the war.
The Muslim people in Mindanao conducted wholly independent resistance against American rule, which also lasted up to 1913. This is sometimes referred to as the second phase of the war.
In the conflict the Filipinos lost 16,000 soldiers — and at least 250,000 civilians through war, famine, and disease. U.S. military casualties included over 4,000 soldiers dead and 3,000 wounded. The U.S.-created Philippine Constabulary suffered 2,000 dead and wounded. (See Joseph R. Stromberg, Anti-imperialism, 1900.)
Rule over the Philippines inspired Sumner to write The Conquest of the United States by Spain, a lecture given at the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Yale University on January 16, 1899, and then published in the Yale Law Journal. More than a century old, it is a towering libertarian manifesto and a scathing indictment of the greatest threat to freedom. Sumner’s title was not ironic. Rather, he saw in U.S. conduct the very tyrannical features that supposedly prompted the war against Spain. He said:
We have beaten Spain in a military conflict, but we are submitting to be conquered by her on the field of ideas and policies. Expansionism and imperialism are nothing but the old philosophies of national prosperity which have brought Spain to where she now is. Those philosophies appeal to national vanity and national cupidity. They are seductive, especially upon the first view and the most superficial judgment, and therefore it cannot be denied that they are very strong for popular effect. They are delusions, and they will lead us to ruin unless we are hardheaded enough to resist them.
In analyzing how the Spanish-American War came about, Sumner demonstrated an unusually clear-eyed and unromantic perception of how politics and war intertwine:
The original and prime cause of the war was that it was a move of partisan tactics in the strife of parties at Washington. As soon as it seemed resolved upon, a number of interests began to see their advantage in it and hastened to further it. It was necessary to make appeals to the public which would bring quite other motives to the support of the enterprise and win the consent of classes who would never consent to either financial or political jobbery. Such appeals were found in sensational assertions which we had no means to verify, in phrases of alleged patriotism, in statements about Cuba and the Cubans which we now know to have been entirely untrue.
Sumner insisted that the current U.S. policy could not coexist with an institutional structure intended for individual liberty, free enterprise, and low taxes.
We see that the peculiarities of our system of government set limitations on us. We cannot do things which a great centralized monarchy could do. The very blessings and special advantages which we enjoy, as compared with others, bring disabilities with them. That is the great fundamental cause of what I have tried to show throughout this lecture, that we cannot govern dependencies consistently with our political system, and that, if we try it, the State which our fathers founded will suffer a reaction which will transform it into another empire just after the fashion of all the old ones. That is what imperialism means.
But America was an exception, he was told. It was not limited as other countries were. Sumner would not accept what this claim was intended to prove:
Another answer which the imperialists make is that Americans can do anything. They say that they do not shrink from responsibilities. They are willing to run into a hole, trusting to luck and cleverness to get out. There are some things that Americans cannot do….
Upon a little serious examination the off-hand disposal of an important question of policy by the declaration that Americans can do any thing proves to be only a silly piece of bombast, and upon a little reflection we find that our hands are quite full at home of problems by the solution of which the peace and happiness of the American people could be greatly increased.
He also had an answer for his adversaries who said that the days of Washington and Jefferson were gone and that new rules applied:
The expansionists answer our remonstrances on behalf of the great American principles by saying that times have changed and that we have outlived the fathers of the republic and their doctrineshellip;. A man who changes his principles from week to week is destitute of character and deserves no confidencehellip;. If the nation has accepted them, sworn by them, founded its legislation on them, imbedded them in the decisions of its courts, and then if it throws them away at six months’ warning, you may depend upon it that that nation will suffer in its moral and political rectitude a shock of the severest kindhellip;. The time when a maxim or principle is worth something is when you are tempted to violate it.
And, yes, the expansionists invoked patriotism, but Sumner was more than up to the challenge:
[T]here are people who are boasting of their patriotism, because they say that we have taken our place now amongst the nations of the earth by virtue of this war. My patriotism is of the kind which is outraged by the notion that the United States never was a great nation until in a petty three months’ campaign it knocked to pieces a poor, decrepit, bankrupt old state like Spain. To hold such an opinion as that is to abandon all American standards, to put shame and scorn on all that our ancestors tried to build up here, and to go over to the standards of which Spain is a representative.
His great fear was that America’s new course would squander all that had made it good and prosperous:
Now what will hasten the day when our present advantages will wear out and when we shall come down to the conditions of the older and densely populated nations? The answer is: war, debt, taxation, diplomacy, a grand governmental system, pomp, glory, a big army and navy, lavish expenditures, political jobbery — in a word, imperialism.
William Graham Sumner holds a special place in the pantheon of heroes committed to individualism, liberty, free markets, and — the indispensable framework — peace.