All Commentary
Sunday, November 1, 1964

On Minding Ones Own Business

William Graham Sumner (1840-1910). Epis­copal minister. Professor of political science at Yale, 1872-1909. President of the American Sociological Society. Author of many books and articles. This is Chapter VIII of his book, What Social Classes Owe to Each Other, pub­lished in 1883.

The passion for dealing with so­cial questions is one of the marks of our time. Every man gets some experience of, and makes some ob­servations on social affairs. Except matters of health, probably none have such general interest as mat­ters of society. Except matters of health, none are so much afflicted by dogmatism and crude specula­tion as those which appertain to society. The amateurs in social science always ask: What shall we do? What shall we do with Neigh­bor A? What shall we do for Neighbor B? What shall we make Neighbor A do for Neighbor B?

It is a fine thing to be planning and discussing broad and general theories of wide application. The amateurs always plan to use the individual for some constructive and inferential social purpose, or to use the society for some constructive and inferential individ­ual purpose. 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 at once. To go on and plan what a whole class of people ought to do is to feel one’s self a power on earth, to win a public position, to clothe one’s self in dignity. Hence we have an unlimited sup­ply of reformers, philanthropists, humanitarians, and would-be man­agers-in-general of society.

The First Duty

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. For, fortun­ately, the matter stands so that the duty of making the best of one’s self individually is not a separate thing from the duty of filling one’s place in society, but the two are one, and the latter is accomplished when the former is done. The common notion, how­ever, seems to be that one has a duty to society, as a special and separate thing, and that this duty consists in considering and decid­ing what other people ought to do.

Now, the man who can do any­thing for or about anybody else than himself is fit to be head of a family; and when he becomes head of a family he has duties to his wife and his children, in addi­tion to the former big duty. Then, again, any man who can take care of himself and his family is in a very exceptional position if he does not find in his immediate sur­roundings people who need his care and have some sort of a per­sonal claim upon him. If, now, he is able to fulfill all this, and to take care of anybody outside his family and his dependents, he must have a surplus of energy, wisdom, and moral virtue beyond what he needs for his own business. No man has this; for a family is a charge which is capable of infinite de­velopment, and no man could suf­fice to the full measure of duty for which a family may draw upon him. Neither can a man give to society so advantageous an em­ployment of his services, whatever they are, in any other way as by spending them on his family. Upon this, however, I will not insist. I recur to the observation that a man who proposes to take care of other people must have himself and his family taken care of, after some sort of a fashion, and must have an as yet unexhausted store of energy.

A Twofold Danger

The danger of minding other people’s business is twofold. First, there is the danger that a man may leave his own business unat­tended to; and, second, there is the danger of an impertinent in­terference with another’s affairs. The “friends of humanity” almost always run into both dangers. I am one of humanity, and I do not want any volunteer friends. I re­gard friendship as mutual, and I want to have my say about it. I suppose that other components of humanity feel in the same way about it. If so, they must regard any one who assumes the role of a friend of humanity as impertinent. The reference of the friend of hu­manity back to his own business is obviously the next step.

Yet we are constantly annoyed, and the legislatures are kept con­stantly busy, by the people who have made up their minds that it is wise and conducive to happiness to live in a certain way, and who want to compel everybody else to live in their way. Some people have decided to spend Sunday in a cer­tain way, and they want laws passed to make other people spend Sunday in the same way. Some people have resolved to be tee­totalers, and they want a law passed to make everybody else a teetotaler. Some people have re­solved to eschew luxury, and they want taxes laid to make others eschew luxury. The taxing power is especially something after which the reformer’s finger always itches. Sometimes there is an ele­ment of self-interest in the pro­posed reformation, as when a pub­lisher wanted a duty imposed on books, to keep Americans from reading books which would un­settle their Americanism; and when artists wanted a tax laid on pictures, to save Americans from buying bad paintings.

I make no reference here to the giving and taking of counsel and aid between man and man. The very sacredness of the relation in which two men stand to one an­other when one of them rescues the other from vice separates that relation from any connection with the professional philanthropist, the work of the social busybody, and the empirical legislator.

Social Quacks

The amateur social doctors are like the amateur physicians—they always begin with the question of remedies, and they go at this with­out any diagnosis or any knowledge of the anatomy or physi­ology of society. They never have any doubt of the efficacy of their remedies. They never take ac­count of any ulterior effects which may be apprehended from the rem­edy itself. It generally troubles them not a whit that their remedy implies a complete reconstruction of society, or even a reconstitution of human nature. Against all such social quackery the obvious in­junction to the quacks is, to mind their own business.

The social doctors enjoy the satisfaction of feeling themselves to be more moral or more enlight­ened than their fellow men. They are able to see what other men ought to do when the other men do not see it. An examination of the work of the social doctors, however, shows that they are only more ignorant and more presump­tuous than other people.

We have a great many social difficulties and hardships to con­tend with. Poverty, pain, disease, and misfortune surround our ex­istence. We fight against them all the time. The individual is a center of hopes, affections, desires, and sufferings. When he dies, life changes its form, but does not cease. That means that the person—the center of all the hopes, affec­tions, etc.—after struggling as long as he can, is sure to succumb at last. We would, therefore, as far as the hardships of the human lot are concerned, go on struggling to the best of our ability against them but for the social doctors, and we would endure what we could not cure.

But we have inherited a vast number of social ills which never came from Nature. They are the complicated products of all the tinkering, muddling, and blunder­ing of social doctors in the past. These products of social quackery are now buttressed by habit, fash­ion, prejudice, platitudinarian thinking, and new quackery in po­litical economy and social science….

The Most Needed Reform

The greatest reforms which could now be accomplished would consist in undoing the work of statesmen in the past, and the greatest difficulty in the way of reform is to find out how to undo their work without injury to what is natural and sound. All this mis­chief has been done by men who sat down to consider the problem (as I heard an apprentice of theirs once express it), What kind of a society do we want to make? When they had settled this question a priori to their satisfaction, they set to work to make their ideal society, and today we suffer the consequences. Human society tries hard to adapt itself to any condi­tions in which it finds itself, and we have been warped and distorted until we have got used to it, as the foot adapts itself to an ill-made boot. Next, we have come to think that that is the right way for things to be; and it is true that a change to a sound and normal con­dition would for a time hurt us, as a man whose foot has been dis­torted would suffer if he tried to wear a well-shaped boot. Finally, we have produced a lot of econo­mists and social philosophers who have invented sophisms for fitting our thinking to the distorted facts.

Society, therefore, does not need any care or supervision. If we can acquire a science of society, based on observation of phenomena and study of forces, we may hope to gain some ground slowly toward the elimination of old errors and the re-establishment of a sound and natural social order. Whatever we gain that way will be by growth, never in the world by any reconstruction of society on the plan of some enthusiastic social architect. The latter is only repeat­ing the old error over again, and postponing all our chances of real improvement. Society needs first of all to be freed from these med­dlers—that is, to be let alone.

Here we are, then, once more back at the old doctrine—Laissez faire. Let us translate it into blunt English, and it will read, Mind your own business. It is nothing but the doctrine of liberty. Let every man be happy in his own way. If his sphere of action and interest impinges on that of any other man, there will have to be compromise and adjustment. Wait for the occasion. Do not attempt to generalize those interferences or to plan for them a priori. We have a body of laws and institu­tions which have grown up as oc­casion has occurred for adjusting rights. Let the same process go on. Practice the utmost reserve possible in your interferences even of this kind, and by no means seize occasion for interfering with nat­ural adjustments. Try first long and patiently whether the natural adjustment will not come about through the play of interests and the voluntary concessions of the parties.

The Root of Dictatorship

I have said that we have an em­pirical political economy and social science to fit the distortions of our society. The test of empiricism in this matter is the attitude which one takes up toward laissez faire. 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 let alone, attain to perfect happiness on earth, we are mis­taken. The half-way men—the professorial socialists—join him. They solemnly shake their heads, and tell us that he is right—that letting us alone will never secure us perfect happiness.

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. Those we will endure or combat as we can. What we desire is, that the friends of humanity should cease to add to them. Our disposition toward the ills which our fellow man inflicts on us through malice or meddling is quite different from our disposi­tion toward the ills which are in­herent in the conditions of human life.

To mind one’s own business is a purely negative and unproduc­tive injunction, but, taking social matters as they are just now, it is a sociological principle of the first importance. There might be de­veloped a grand philosophy on the basis of minding one’s own busi­ness.