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Tuesday, October 30, 2018

William Graham Sumner: An Unjustly Forgotten Man

Given that American policy has not exactly gotten over its “forgotten man” amnesia, with plenty of propositions and candidates proposing more seemingly every day, Sumner’s insights merit revisiting.

October 30th marks the birth of William Graham Sumner, “The Gilded Age’s most renowned teacher of social science.” Sumner is most famous for “the forgotten man.” As he put it, in “most schemes of philanthropy or humanitarianism…A and B put their heads together to decide what C shall be made to do for D…I call C the Forgotten Man.”

Given that American policy has not exactly gotten over its “forgotten man” amnesia, with plenty of propositions and candidates proposing more seemingly every day, Sumner’s insights merit revisiting. His condemnation of “any scheme which aims to gain, not by the legitimate fruits of industry and enterprise, but by extorting from somebody a part of his product” is just as critical today.

“Social doctors…ignore all the effects on other members of society than the ones they have in view.”

“The State cannot get a cent for any man without taking it from some other man…we forget who it is that pays. It is the forgotten man.”

“To lift one man up we push another down…trampling on those who are trying to help themselves.”

“The workingman needs no improvement in his condition except to be freed from the parasites who are living on him.”

“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.”

“The forgotten man…ought to be first and always remembered…What… becomes of the natural rights of the one whose energies are to be diverted from his own interests?”

“The forgotten man is weighted down with the cost and burden of the schemes for making everyone happy…take some of the burdens off him…It will only be justice for him, and society will greatly gain by it.”

“If you learn to look for the forgotten man and to care for him, you will be very skeptical toward all the philanthropic and humanitarian schemes.”

“The forgotten man would no longer be forgotten where there was true liberty.”

“Liberty means the security given to each man that…he shall dispose of the produce exclusively as he chooses. It is impossible to know whence any definition or criterion of justice can be derived, if it is not deduced from this view of things; or if it is not the definition of justice that each shall enjoy the fruit of his own labor and self-denial.”

“The reason why liberty…is a good thing is that it means leaving people to live out their own lives in their own way, while we do the same.”

“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, etc., shall redound to his own welfare and shall not be diverted to someone else’s benefit.”

“Equality before the law…leaves each man to run the race of life for himself as best he can. The state stands neutral but benevolent. It does not undertake to aid some and handicap others…the servant of envy. I am entitled to make the most I can of myself without hindrance from anybody, but I am not entitled to any guarantee that I shall make as much of myself as somebody else makes of himself.”

“What the forgotten man needs, therefore, is that we come to a clearer understanding of liberty…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.”

William Graham Sumner used “the forgotten man” to highlight the inequity and damage to liberty that routinely comprises much of what government does. Unfortunately, we now almost totally ignore his wisdom, imposing vastly expanded burdens on some for others. Sumner’s insights merit renewed attention if we wish to defend our liberty rather than further eviscerate it.

  • Gary M. Galles is a Professor of Economics at Pepperdine University and a member of the Foundation for Economic Education faculty network.

    In addition to his new book, Pathways to Policy Failures (2020), his books include Lines of Liberty (2016), Faulty Premises, Faulty Policies (2014), and Apostle of Peace (2013).