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

John Attarian

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This collection of 33 of Sumner’s essays, some previously unpublished, facilitates that reappraisal, handily drawing together such important pieces as “The Forgotten Man,” “Republican Government,” “The Argument Against Protective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.

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