All Commentary
Friday, August 1, 1969

The Forgotten Man

William Graham Sumner's classic essay

[This essay was presented in the form of speeches delivered January 1883]

There is no such thing on this earth as something for nothing. Whatever we inherit of wealth, knowledge, or institutions from the past has been paid for by the labor and sacrifice of preceding generations; and the fact that these gains are carried on, that the race lives and that the race can, at least within some cycle, ac­cumulate its gains, is one of the facts on which civilization rests. The law of the conservation of energy is not simply a law of physics; it is a law of the whole moral universe, and the order and truth of all things conceivable by man depends upon it. If there were any such liberty as that of doing as you have a mind to, the human race would be condemned to everlasting anarchy and war as these erratic wills crossed and clashed against each other. True liberty lies in the equilibrium of rights and duties, producing peace, order, and harmony. As I have de­fined it, it means that a man’s right to take power and wealth out of the social product is meas­ured by the energy and wisdom which he has contributed to the social effort.

Now if I have set this idea be­fore you with any distinctness and success, you see that civil liberty consists of a set of civil institu­tions and laws which are arranged to act as impersonally as possible. It does not consist in majority rule or in universal suffrage or in elective systems at all. These are devices which are good or better just in the degree in which they secure liberty. The institutions of civil liberty leave each man to run his career in life in his own way, only guaranteeing to him that whatever he does in the way of industry, economy, prudence, sound judgment, and the like, shall redound to his own welfare and shall not be diverted to some­one else’s benefit. Of course, it is a necessary corollary that each man shall also bear the penalty of his own vices and his own mis­takes. If I want to be free from any other man’s dictation, I must understand that I can have no other man under my control….

“The Poor and the Weak”

Now you know that “the poor and the weak” are continually put forward as objects of public inter­est and public obligation. In the appeals which are made, the terms “the poor” and “the weak” are used as if they were terms of ex­act definition. Except the pauper, that is to say, the man who can­not earn his living or pay his way, there is no possible definition of a poor man. Except a man who is incapacitated by vice or by phy­sical infirmity, there is no defini­tion of a weak man. The paupers and the physically incapacitated are an inevitable charge on so­ciety. About them no more need be said.

But the weak who constantly arouse the pity of humanitarians and philanthropists are the shift­less, the imprudent, the negligent, the impractical, and the inefficient, or they are the idle, the intem­perate, the extravagant, and the vicious. Now the troubles of these persons are constantly forced upon public attention, as if they and their interests deserved espe­cial consideration, and a great portion of all organized and unor­ganized effort for the common wel­fare consists in attempts to re­lieve these classes of people. I do not wish to be understood now as saying that nothing ought to be done for these people by those who are stronger and wiser. That is not my point. What I want to do is to point out the thing which is overlooked and the error which is made in all these charitable ef­forts.

The notion is accepted as if it were not open to any question that if you help the inefficient and vi­cious you may gain something for society or you may not, but that you lose nothing. This is a com­plete mistake. Whatever capital you divert to the support of a shiftless and good-for-nothing per­son is so much diverted from some other employment, and that means from somebody else. I would spend any conceivable amount of zeal and eloquence if I possessed it to try to make people grasp this idea. Capital is force. If it goes one way it cannot go another. If you give a loaf to a pauper you can­not give the same loaf to a laborer. Now this other man who would have got it but for the charitable sentiment which bestowed it on a worthless member of society is the Forgotten Man. The philan­thropists and humanitarians have their minds all full of the wretched and miserable whose case appeals to compassion, at­tacks the sympathies, takes pos­session of the imagination, and excites the emotions. They push on towards the quickest and easi­est remedies and they forget the real victim.

The Simple, Honest Laborer

Now who is the Forgotten Man? He is the simple, honest laborer, ready to earn his living by produc­tive work. We pass him by because he is independent, self-supporting, and asks no favors. He does not appeal to the emotions or excite the sentiments. He only wants to make a contract and fulfill it, with respect on both sides and favor on neither side. He must get his liv­ing out of the capital of the coun­try. The larger the capital is, the better living he can get. Every particle of capital which is wasted on the vicious, the idle, and the shiftless is so much taken from the capital available to reward the independent and productive la­borer.

But we stand with our backs to the independent and productive la­borer all the time. We do not re­member him because he makes no clamor; but I appeal to you whether he is not the man who ought to be remembered first of all, and whether, on any sound so­cial theory, we ought not to pro­tect him against the burdens of the good-for-nothing. In these last years I have read hundreds of articles and heard scores of ser­mons and speeches which were really glorifications of the good-for-nothing, as if these were the charge of society, recommended by right reason to its care and protection. We are addressed all the time as if those who are re­spectable were to blame because some are not so, and as if there were an obligation on the part of those who have done their duty towards those who have not done their duty. Every man is bound to take care of himself and his fam­ily and to do his share in the work of society. It is totally false that one who has done so is bound to bear the care and charge of those who are wretched because they have not done so.

The silly popular notion is that the beggars live at the expense of the rich, but the truth is that those who eat and produce not, live at the expense of those who labor and produce. The next time that you are tempted to subscribe a dollar to a charity, I do not tell you not to do it, because after you have fairly considered the matter, you may think it right to do it, but I do ask you to stop and re­member the Forgotten Man and understand that if you put your dollar in the savings bank, it will go to swell the capital of the coun­try which is available for division amongst those who, while they earn it, will reproduce it with in­crease.

“The Working Classes”

Let us now go on to another class of cases. There are a great many schemes brought forward for “improving the condition of the working classes.” I have shown already that a free man cannot take a favor. One who takes a fa­vor or submits to patronage de­means himself. He falls under ob­ligation. He cannot be free and he cannot assert a station of equality with the man who confers the fa­vor on him. The only exception is where there are exceptional bonds of affection or friendship, that is, where the sentimental relation supersedes the free relation. Therefore, in a country which is a free democracy, all propositions to do something for the working classes have an air of patronage and superiority which is imper­tinent and out of place.

No one can do anything for any­body else unless he has a surplus of energy to dispose of after tak­ing care of himself. In the United States, the working classes, tech­nically so called, are the strongest classes. It is they who have a sur­plus to dispose of if anybody has. Why should anybody else offer to take care of them or to serve them? They can get whatever they think worth having and, at any rate, if they are free men in a free state, it is ignominious and unbecoming to introduce fashions of patronage and favoritism here. A man who, by superior education and experience of business, is in a position to advise a struggling man of the wages class, is cer­tainly held to do so and will, I be­lieve, always be willing and glad to do so; but this sort of activity lies in the range of private and personal relations.

I now, however, desire to direct attention to the public, general, and impersonal schemes, and I point out the fact that, if you un­dertake to lift anybody, you must have a fulcrum or point of resist­ance. All the elevation you give to one must be gained by an equiva­lent depression on someone else. The question of gain to society depends upon the balance of the account, as regards the position of the persons who undergo the respective operations. But nearly all the schemes for “improving the condition of the working man” in­volve an elevation of some work­ing men at the expense of other working men.

When you expend capital or la­bor to elevate some persons who come within the sphere of your in­fluence, you interfere in the con­ditions of competition. The advan­tage of some is won by an equiva­lent loss of others. The difference is not brought about by the energy and effort of the persons them­selves. If it were, there would be nothing to be said about it, for we constantly see people surpass others in the rivalry of life and carry off the prizes which the others must do without. In the cases I am discussing, the differ­ence is brought about by an inter­ference which must be partial, ar­bitrary, accidental, controlled by favoritism and personal prefer­ence.

I do not say, in this case, either, that we ought to do no work of this kind. On the contrary, I be­lieve that the arguments for it quite outweigh, in many cases, the arguments against it. What I de­sire, again, is to bring out the forgotten element which we al­ways need to remember in order to make a wise decision as to any scheme of this kind. I want to call to mind the Forgotten Man, because, in this case also, if were call him and go to look for him, we shall find him patiently and perseveringly, manfully and inde­pendently struggling against ad­verse circumstances without com­plaining or begging. If, then, we are led to heed the groaning and complaining of others and to take measures for helping these others, we shall, before we know it, push down this man who is trying to help himself.

The Abuse of Legislation

Let us take another class of cases. So far we have said nothing about the abuse of legislation. We all seem to be under the delusion that the rich pay the taxes. Taxes are not thrown upon the con­sumers with any such directness and completeness as is sometimes assumed; but that, in ordinary states of the market, taxes on houses fall, for the most part, on the tenants and that taxes on com­modities fall, for the most part, on the consumers, is beyond ques­tion. Now the state and munici­pality go to great expense to sup­port policemen and sheriffs and judicial officers, to protect people against themselves, that is, against the results of their own folly, vice, and recklessness. Who pays for it? Undoubtedly the people who have not been guilty of folly, vice, or recklessness. Out of nothing comes nothing. We cannot collect taxes from people who produce nothing and save nothing. The people who have something to tax must be those who have produced and saved.

When you see a drunkard in the gutter, you are disgusted, but you pity him. When a policeman comes and picks him up you are satis­fied. You say that “society” has interfered to save the drunkard from perishing. Society is a fine word, and it saves us the trouble of thinking to say that society acts. The truth is that the police­man is paid by somebody, and when we talk about society we for­get who it is that pays. It is the Forgotten Man again. It is the industrious workman going home from a hard day’s work, whom you pass without noticing, who is mulcted of a percentage of his day’s earnings to hire a police­man to save the drunkard from himself.

All the public expenditure to prevent vice has the same effect. Vice is its own curse. If we let nature alone, she cures vice by the most frightful penalties. It may shock you to hear me say it, but when you get over the shock, it will do you good to think of it: a drunkard in the gutter is just where he ought to be. Nature is working away at him to get him out of the way, just as she sets up her processes of dissolution to remove whatever is a failure in its line. Gambling and less men­tionable vices all cure themselves by the ruin and dissolution of their victims. Nine-tenths of our measures for preventing vice are really protective towards it, be­cause they ward off the penalty. “Ward off,” I say, and that is the usual way of looking at it; but is the penalty really annihilated? By no means. It is turned into police and court expenses and spread over those who have resisted vice. It is the Forgotten Man again who has been subjected to the penalty while our minds were full of the drunkards, spendthrifts, gamblers, and other victims of dis­sipation. Who is, then, the For­gotten Man? He is the clean, quiet, virtuous, domestic citizen, who pays his debts and his taxes and is never heard of out of his little circle. Yet, who is there in the society of a civilized state who deserves to be remembered and considered by the legislator and statesman before this man?

State Regulation and Control

Another class of cases is closely connected with this last. There is an apparently invincible prejudice in people’s minds in favor of state regulation. All experience is against state regulation and in fa­vor of liberty. The freer the civil institutions are, the more weak or mischievous state regulation is. The Prussian bureaucracy can do a score of things for the citizen which no governmental organ in the United States can do; and, conversely, if we want to be taken care of as Prussians and French­men are, we must give up some­thing of our personal liberty.

Now we have a great many well-intentioned people among us who believe that they are serving their country when they discuss plans for regulating the relations of employer and employee, or the sanitary regulations of dwellings, or the construction of factories, or the way to behave on Sunday, or what people ought not to eat or drink or smoke. All this is harm­less enough and well enough as a basis of mutual encouragement and missionary enterprise, but it is almost always made a basis of legislation. The reformers want to get a majority, that is, to get the power of the state and so to make other people do what the reform­ers think it right and wise to do. A and B agree to spend Sunday in a certain way. They get a law passed to make C pass it in their way. They determine to be teeto­tallers and they get a law passed to make C be a teetotaller for the sake of D who is likely to drink too much.

Factory acts for women and children are right because women and children are not on an equal footing with men and cannot, therefore, make contracts prop­erly. Adult men, in a free state, must be left to make their own contracts and defend themselves. It will not do to say that some men are weak and unable to make contracts any better than women. Our civil institutions assume that all men are equal in political ca­pacity and all are given equal measure of political power and right, which is not the case with women and children. If, then, we measure political rights by one theory and social responsibilities by another, we produce an im­moral and vicious relation. A and B, however, get factory acts and other acts passed regulating the relation of employers and em­ployees and set armies of commis­sioners and inspectors traveling about to see to things, instead of using their efforts, if any are needed, to lead the free men to make their own conditions as to what kind of factory buildings they will work in, how many hours they will work, what they will do on Sunday, and so on.

The consequence is that men lose the true education in freedom which is needed to support free in­stitutions. They are taught to rely on government officers and in­spectors. The whole system of gov­ernment inspectors is corrupting to free institutions. In England, the liberals used always to regard state regulation with suspicion, but since they have come to power, they plainly believe that state regulation is a good thing— if they regulate—because, of course, they want to bring about good things. In this country each party takes turns, according as it is in or out, in supporting or denouncing the noninterference theory.

Who Is the Victim?

Now, if we have state regula­tion, what is always forgotten is this: Who pays for it? Who is the victim of it? There always is a victim. The workmen who do not defend themselves have to pay for the inspectors who defend them. The whole system of social regu­lation by boards, commissioners, and inspectors consists in reliev­ing negligent people of the conse­quences of their negligence and so leaving them to continue negligent without correction. That system also turns away from the agencies which are close, direct, and ger­mane to the purpose, and seeks others.

Now, if you relieve negligent people of the consequences of their negligence, you can only throw those consequences on the people who have not been negligent. If you turn away from the agencies which are direct and cognate to the purpose, you can only employ other agencies. Here, then, you have your Forgotten Man again. The man who has been careful and prudent and who wants to go on and reap his advantages for him­self and his children is arrested just at that point, and he is told that he must go and take care of some negligent employees in a factory or on a railroad who have not provided precautions for them­selves or have not forced their employers to provide precautions, or negligent tenants who have not taken care of their own sanitary arrangements, or negligent house­holders who have not provided against fire, or negligent parents who have not sent their children to school.

If the Forgotten Man does not go, he must hire an inspector to go. No doubt it is often worth his while to go or send, rather than leave the thing undone, on account of his remoter interest; but what I want to show is that all this is unjust to the Forgotten Man, and that the reformers and philoso­phers miss the point entirely when they preach that it is his duty to do all this work. Let them preach to the negligent to learn to take care of themselves. Whenever A and B put their heads together and decide what A, B, and C must do for D, there is never any pres­sure on A and B. They consent to it and like it. There is rarely any pressure on D because he does not like it and contrives to evade it. The pressure all comes on C. Now, who is C? He is always the man who, if let alone, would make a reasonable use of his liberty with­out abusing it. He would not con­stitute any social problem at all and would not need any regula­tion. He is the Forgotten Man again, and as soon as he is brought from his obscurity you see that he is just that one amongst us who is what we all ought to be….

The One Who Pays

Such is the Forgotten Man. He works, he votes, generally he prays—but he always pays—yes, above all, he pays. He does not want an office; his name never gets into the newspaper except when he gets married or dies. He keeps production going on. He contrib­utes to the strength of parties. He is flattered before election. He is strongly patriotic. He is wanted, whenever, in his little circle, there is work to be done or counsel to be given. He may grumble some oc­casionally to his wife and family, but he does not frequent the gro­cery or talk politics at the tavern. Consequently, he is forgotten. He is a commonplace man. He gives no trouble. He excites no admira­tion. He is not in any way a hero (like a popular orator); or a prob­lem (like tramps and outcasts); nor notorious (like criminals); nor an object of sentiment (like the poor and weak); nor a burden (like paupers and loafers); nor an object out of which social capital may be made (like the benefici­aries of church and state chari­ties); nor an object for charitable aid and protection (like animals treated with cruelty); nor the ob­ject of a job (like the ignorant and illiterate); nor one over whom sentimental economists and statesmen can parade their fine sentiments (like inefficient work­men and shiftless artisans). Therefore, he is forgotten. All the burdens fall on him, or on her, for it is time to remember that the Forgotten Man is not seldom a woman….

It is plain enough that the For­gotten Man and the Forgotten Woman are the very life and sub­stance of society. They are the ones who ought to be first and al­ways remembered. They are al­ways forgotten by sentimentalists, philanthropists, reformers, enthu­siasts, and every description of speculator in sociology, political economy, or political science. If a student of any of these sciences ever comes to understand the posi­tion of the Forgotten Man and to appreciate his true value, you will find such student an uncompro­mising advocate of the strictest scientific thinking on all social topics, and a cold and hard­hearted skeptic towards all arti­ficial schemes of social ameliora­tion.

A Wasted Productive Force

If it is desired to bring about social improvements, bring us a scheme for relieving the Forgot­ten Man of some of his burdens. He is our productive force which we are wasting. Let us stop wast­ing his force. Then we shall have a clean and simple gain for the whole society. The Forgotten Man is weighted down with the cost and burden of the schemes for making everybody happy, with the cost of public beneficence, with the support of all the loafers, with the loss of all the economic quack­ery, with the cost of all the jobs. Let us remember him a little while. Let us take some of the burdens off him. Let us turn our pity on him instead of on the good-for-nothing. It will be only justice to him, and society will greatly gain by it. Why should we not also have the satisfaction of thinking and caring for a little while about the clean, honest, in­dustrious, independent, self-sup­porting men and women who have not inherited much to make life luxurious for them, but who are doing what they can to get on in the world without begging from anybody, especially since all they want is to be let alone with good friendship and honest respect. Cer­tainly the philanthropists and sen­timentalists have kept our atten­tion for a long time on the nasty, shiftless, criminal, whining, crawl­ing, and good-for-nothing people, as if they alone deserved our at­tention.

The Forgotten Man is never a pauper. He almost always has a little capital because it belongs to the character of the man to save something. He never has more than a little. He is, therefore, poor in the popular sense, although in the correct sense he is not so. I have said already that if you learn to look for the Forgotten Man and to care for him, you will be very skeptical toward all philan­thropic and humanitarian schemes. It is clear now that the interest of the Forgotten Man and the interest of “the poor,” “the weak,” and the other petted classes are in antagonism. In fact, the warn­ing to you to look for the For­gotten Man comes the minute that the orator or writer begins to talk about the poor man. That minute the Forgotten Man is in danger of a new assault, and if you intend to meddle in the matter at all, then is the minute for you to look about for him and to give him your aid. Hence, if you care for the Forgotten Man, you will be sure to be charged with not caring for the poor. Whatever you do for any of the petted classes wastes capital. If you do anything for the Forgotten Man, you must secure him his earnings and savings, that is, you legislate for the security of capital and for its free employ­ment; you must oppose paper money, wildcat banking, and usury laws, and you must maintain the inviolability of contracts. Hence, you must be prepared to be told that you favor the capitalist class, the enemy of the poor man.

Needed: an Understanding and Practice of Liberty

What the Forgotten Man really wants is true liberty. Most of his wrongs and woes come from the fact that there are yet mixed to­gether in our institutions the old medieval theories of protection and personal dependence and the mod­ern theories of independence and individual liberty. The conse­quence is that the people who are clever enough to get into positions of control, measure their own rights by the paternal theory and their own duties by the theory of independent liberty. It follows that the Forgotten Man, who is hard at work at home, has to pay both ways. His rights are meas­ured by the theory of liberty, that is, he has only such as he can conquer. His duties are measured by the paternal theory, that is, he must discharge all which are laid upon him, as is always the fortune of parents.

People talk about the paternal theory of government as if it were a very simple thing. Analyze it, however, and you see that in every paternal relation there must be two parties, a parent and a child, and when you speak metaphorical­ly, it makes all the difference in the world who is parent and who is child. Now, since we, the people, are the state, whenever there is any work to be done or expense to be paid, and since the petted class­es and the criminals and the job­bers cost and do not pay, it is they who are in the position of the child, and it is the Forgotten Man who is the parent. What the Forgotten Man needs, therefore, is that we come to a clearer under­standing of liberty and to a more complete realization of it. Every step which we win in liberty will set the Forgotten Man free from some of his burdens and allow him to use his powers for himself and for the commonwealth.