The State and the Ruling Class: An Anthology of Key Works of Libertarian/Classical Liberal Class Analysis

Compiled by David M. Hart
Table of Contents of the Anthology: <>

[Created: 16 August, 2016]
[Updated: 30 April, 2017 ]


William Graham Sumner, “The Forgotten Man” (1883)

Editing History

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William Graham Sumner, The Forgotten Man and Other Essays, ed. Albert Galloway Keller (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1918). 9/2/2016. <>

- “The Forgotten Man” (1883) <>


“On the Case of a Certain Man who is never thought of” (1884)

“The Case of the Forgotten Man farther considered” (no date)

“What makes the Rich Richer and the Poor Poorer?” (1887)

“State Interference” (1887)

“Earth Hunger or the Philosophy of Land Grabbing” (1896)

“Separation of State and Market” (no date)

“Democracy and Plutocracy” (no date) which also includes “Definitions of Democracy and Plutocracy” and “The Conflict of Plutocracy and Democracy”

Editor's Intro



I PROPOSE in this lecture to discuss one of the most subtile and widespread social fallacies. It consists in the impression made on the mind for the time being by a particular fact, or by the interests of a particular group of persons, to which attention is directed while other facts or the interests of other persons are entirely left out of account. I shall give a number of instances and illustrations of this in a moment, and I cannot expect you to understand what is meant from an abstract statement until these illustrations are before you, but just by way of a general illustration I will put one or two cases.

Whenever a pestilence like yellow fever breaks out in any city, our attention is especially attracted towards it, and our sympathies are excited for the sufferers. If contributions are called for, we readily respond. Yet the number of persons who die prematurely from consumption every year greatly exceeds the deaths from yellow fever or any similar disease when it occurs, and the suffering entailed by consumption is very much greater. The suffering from consumption, however, never constitutes a public question or a subject of social discussion. If an inundation takes place anywhere, constituting a public calamity (and an inundation takes place somewhere in the civilized world nearly every year), public attention is attracted and public appeals are made, but the losses by great inundations must be insignificant compared with the losses by runaway horses, which, taken separately, scarcely obtain mention in a local newspaper. In hard times insolvent debtors are a large class. They constitute an interest and are able to attract public attention, so that social philosophers discuss their troubles and legislatures plan measures of relief. Insolvent debtors, however, are an insignificant body compared with the victims of commonplace misfortune, or accident, who are isolated, scattered, ungrouped and ungeneralized, and so are never made the object of discussion or relief. In seasons of ordinary prosperity, persons who become insolvent have to get out of their troubles as they can. They have no hope of relief from the legislature. The number of insolvents during a series of years of general prosperity, and their losses, greatly exceed the number and losses during a special period of distress.

These illustrations bring out only one side of my subject, and that only partially. It is when we come to the proposed measures of relief for the evils which have caught public attention that we reach the real subject which deserves our attention. As soon as A observes something which seems to him to be wrong, from which X is suffering, A talks it over with B, and A and B then propose to get a law passed to remedy the evil and help X. Their law always proposes to determine what C shall do for X or, in the better case, what A, B and C shall do for X. As for A and B, who get a law to make themselves do for X what they are willing to do for him, we have nothing to say except that they might better have done it without any law, 'but what I want to do is to look up C. I want to show you what manner of man he is. I call him the Forgotten Man. Perhaps the appellation is not strictly correct. He is the man who never is thought of. He is the victim of the reformer, social speculator and philanthropist, and I hope to show you before I get through that he deserves your notice both for his character and for the many burdens which are laid upon him.

No doubt one great reason for the phenomenon which I bring to your attention is the passion for reflection and generalization which marks our period. Since the printing press has come into such wide use, we have all been encouraged to philosophize about things in a way which was unknown to our ancestors. They lived their lives out in positive contact with actual cases as they arose. They had little of this analysis, introspection, reflection and speculation which have passed into a habit and almost into a disease with us. Of all things which tempt to generalization and to philosophizing, social topics stand foremost. Each one of us gets some experience of social forces. Each one has some chance for observation of social phenomena. There is certainly no domain in which generalization is easier. There is nothing about which people dogmatize more freely. Even men of scientific training in some department in which they would not tolerate dogmatism at all will not hesitate to dogmatize in the most reckless manner about social topics. The truth is, however, that science, as yet, has won less control of social phenomena than of any other class of phenomena. The most complex and difficult subject which we now have to study is the constitution of human society, the forces which operate in it, and the laws by which they act, and we know less about these things than about any others which demand our attention. In such a state of things, over-hasty generalization is sure to be extremely mischievous. You cannot take up a magazine or newspaper without being struck by the feverish interest with which social topics and problems are discussed, and if you were a student of social science, you would find in almost all these discussions evidence, not only that the essential preparation for the discussion is wanting, but that the disputants do not even know that there is any preparation to be gained. Consequently we are bewildered by contradictory dogmatizing. We find in all these discussions only the application of pet notions and the clashing of contradictory “views.” Remedies are confidently proposed for which there is no guarantee offered except that the person who prescribes the remedy says that he is sure it will work. We hear constantly of “reform,” and the reformers turn out to be people who do not like things as they are and wish that they could be made nicer. We hear a great many exhortations to make progress from people who do not know in what direction they want to go. Consequently social reform is the most barren and tiresome subject of discussion amongst us, except æsthetics.

I suppose that the first chemists seemed to be very hardhearted and unpoetical persons when they scouted the glorious dream of the alchemists that there must be some process for turning base metals into gold. I suppose that the men who first said, in plain, cold assertion, there is no fountain of eternal youth, seemed to be the most cruel and cold-hearted adversaries of human happiness. I know that the economists who say that if we could transmute lead into gold, it would certainly do us no good and might do great harm, are still regarded as unworthy of belief. Do not the money articles of the newspapers yet ring with the doctrine that we are getting rich when we give cotton and wheat for gold rather than when we give cotton and wheat for iron?

Let us put down now the cold, hard fact and look at it just as it is. There is no device whatever to be invented for securing happiness without industry, economy, and virtue. We are yet in the empirical stage as regards all our social devices. We have done something in science and art in the domain of production, transportation and exchange. But when you come to the laws of the social order, we know very little about them. Our laws and institutions by which we attempt to regulate our lives under the laws of nature which control society are merely a series of haphazard experiments. We come into collision with the laws and are not intelligent enough to understand wherein we are mistaken and how to correct our errors. We persist in our experiments instead of patiently setting about the study of the laws and facts in order to see where we are wrong. Traditions and formulae have a dominion over us in legislation and social customs which we seem unable to break or even to modify.

For my present purpose I ask your attention for a few moments to the notion of liberty, because the Forgotten Man would no longer be forgotten where there was true liberty. You will say that you know what liberty is. There is no term of more common or prouder use. None is more current, as if it were quite beyond the need of definition. Even as I write, however, I find in a leading review a new definition of civil liberty. Civil liberty the writer declares to be “the result of the restraint exercised by the sovereign people on the more powerful individuals and classes of the community, preventing them from availing themselves of the excess of their power to the detriment of the other classes.” You notice here the use of the words “sovereign people” to designate a class of the population, not the nation as a political and civil whole. Wherever “people” is used in such a sense, there is always fallacy. Furthermore, you will recognize in this definition a very superficial and fallacious construction of English constitutional history. The writer goes on to elaborate that construction and he comes out at last with the conclusion that “a government by the people can, in no case, become a paternal government, since its law-makers are its mandataries and servants carrying out its will, and not its fathers or its masters.” This, then, is the point at which he desires to arrive, and he has followed a familiar device in setting up a definition to start with which would produce the desired deduction at the end.

In the definition the word “people” was used for a class or section of the population. It is now asserted that if that section rules, there can be no paternal, that is, undue, government. That doctrine, however, is the very opposite of liberty and contains the most vicious error possible in politics. The truth is that cupidity, selfishness, envy, malice, lust, vindictiveness, are constant vices of human nature. They are not confined to classes or to nations or particular ages of the world. They present themselves in the palace, in the parliament, in the academy, in the church, in the workshop, and in the hovel. They appear in autocracies, theocracies, aristocracies, democracies, and ochlocracies all alike. They change their masks somewhat from age to age and from one form of society to another. All history is only one long story to this effect: men have struggled for power over their fellow-men in order that they might win the joys of earth at the expense of others and might shift the burdens of life from their own shoulders upon those of others. It is true that, until this time, the proletariat, the mass of mankind, have rarely had the power and they have not made such a record as kings and nobles and priests have made of the abuses they would perpetrate against their fellow-men when they could and dared. But what folly it is to think that vice and passion are limited by classes, that liberty consists only in taking power away from nobles and priests and giving it to artisans and peasants and that these latter will never abuse it! They will abuse it just as all others have done unless they are put under checks and guarantees, and there can be no civil liberty anywhere unless rights are guaranteed against all abuses, as well from proletarians as from generals, aristocrats, and ecclesiastics.

Now what has been amiss in all the old arrangements? The evils of the old military and aristocratic governments was that some men enjoyed the fruits of other men's labor; that some persons' lives, rights, interests and happiness were sacrificed to other persons' cupidity and lust. What have our ancestors been striving for, under the name of civil liberty, for the last five hundred years? They have been striving to bring it about that each man and woman might live out his or her life according to his or her own notions of happiness and up to the measure of his or her own virtue and wisdom. How have they sought to accomplish this? They have sought to accomplish it by setting aside all arbitrary personal or class elements and introducing the reign of law and the supremacy of constitutional institutions like the jury, the habeas corpus, the independent judiciary, the separation of church and state, and the ballot. Note right here one point which will be important and valuable when I come more especially to the case of the Forgotten Man: whenever you talk of liberty, you must have two men in mind. The sphere of rights of one of these men trenches upon that of the other, and whenever you establish liberty for the one, you repress the other. Whenever absolute sovereigns are subjected to constitutional restraints, you always hear them remonstrate that their liberty is curtailed. So it is, in the sense that their power of determining what shall be done in the state is limited below what it was before and the similar power of other organs in the state is widened. Whenever the privileges of an aristocracy are curtailed, there is heard a similar complaint. The truth is that the line of limit or demarcation between classes as regards civil power has been moved and what has been taken from one class is given to another.

We may now, then, advance a step in our conception of civil liberty. It is the status in which we find the true adjustment of rights between classes and individuals. Historically, the conception of civil liberty has been constantly changing. The notion of rights changes from one generation to another and the conception of civil liberty changes with it. If we try to formulate a true definition of civil liberty as an ideal thing towards which the development of political institutions is all the time tending, it would be this: Civil liberty is the status of the man who is guaranteed by law and civil institutions the exclusive employment of all his own powers for his own welfare.

This definition of liberty or civil liberty, you see, deals only with concrete and actual relations of the civil order. There is some sort of a poetical and metaphysical notion of liberty afloat in men's minds which some people dream about but which nobody can define. In popular language it means that a man may do as he has a mind to. When people get this notion of liberty into their heads and combine with it the notion that they live in a free country and ought to have liberty, they sometimes make strange demands upon the state. If liberty means to be able to do as you have a mind to, there is no such thing in this world. Can the Czar of Russia do as he has a mind to? Can the Pope do as he has a mind to? Can the President of the United States do as he has a mind to? Can Rothschild do as he has a mind to? Could a Humboldt or a Faraday do as he had a mind to? Could a Shakespeare or a Raphael do as he had a mind to? Can a tramp do as he has a mind to? Where is the man, whatever his station, possessions, or talents, who can get any such liberty? There is none. There is a doctrine floating about in our literature that we are born to the inheritance of certain rights. That is another glorious dream, for it would mean that there was something in this world which we got for nothing. But what is the truth? We are born into no right whatever but what has an equivalent and corresponding duty right alongside of it. 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, etc., shall redound to his own welfare and shall not be diverted to some one 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.

Now with these definitions and general conceptions in mind, let us turn to the special class of facts to which, as I said at the outset, I invite your attention. We see that under a régime of liberty and equality before the law, we get the highest possible development of independence, self-reliance, individual energy, and enterprise, but we get these high social virtues at the expense of the old sentimental ties which used to unite baron and retainer, master and servant, sage and disciple, comrade and comrade. We are agreed that the son shall not be disgraced even by the crime of the father, much less by the crime of a more distant relative. It is a humane and rational view of things that each life shall stand for itself alone and not be weighted by the faults of another, but it is useless to deny that this view of things is possible only in a society where the ties of kinship have lost nearly all the intensity of poetry and romance which once characterized them. The ties of sentiment and sympathy also have faded out. We have come, under the regime of liberty and equality before the law, to a form of society which is based not on status, but on free contract. Now a society based on status is one in which classes, ranks, interests, industries, guilds, associations, etc., hold men in permanent relations to each other. Custom and prescription create, under status, ties, the strength of which lies in sentiment. Feeble remains of this may be seen in some of our academical societies to-day, and it is unquestionably a great privilege and advantage for any man in our society to win an experience of the sentiments which belong to a strong and close association, just because the chances for such experience are nowadays very rare. In a society based on free contract, men come together as free and independent parties to an agreement which is of mutual advantage. The relation is rational, even rationalistic. It is not poetical. It does not exist from use and custom, but for reasons given, and it does not endure by prescription but ceases when the reason for it ceases. There is no sentiment in it at all. The fact is that, under the regime of liberty and equality before the law, there is no place for sentiment in trade or politics as public interests. Sentiment is thrown back into private life, into personal relations, and if ever it comes into a public discussion of an impersonal and general public question it always produces mischief.

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.

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.

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 some one 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 we recall 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.

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 bis 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?

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 employee 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 non-interference theory.

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.

Let us look at another case. I read again and again arguments to prove that criminals have claims and rights against society. Not long ago, I read an account of an expensive establishment for the reformation of criminals, and I am told that we ought to reform criminals, not merely punish them vindictively. When I was a young man, I read a great many novels by Eugene Sue, Victor Hugo, and other Frenchmen of the school of '48, in which the badness of a bad man is represented, not as his fault, but as the fault of society. Now, as society consists of the bad men plus the good men, and as the object of this declaration was to show that the badness of the bad men was not the fault of the bad men, it remains that the badness of the bad men must be the fault of the good men. No doubt, it is far more consoling to the bad men than even to their friends to reach the point of this demonstration.

Let us ask, now, for a moment, what is the sense of punishment, since a good many people seem to be quite in a muddle about it. Every man in society is bound in nature and reason to contribute to the strength and welfare of society. He ought to work, to be peaceful, honest, just, and virtuous. A criminal is a man who, instead of working with and for society, turns his efforts against the common welfare in some way or other. He disturbs order, violates harmony, invades the security and happiness of others, wastes and destroys capital. If he is put to death, it is on the ground that he has forfeited all right to existence in society by the magnitude of his offenses against its welfare. If he is imprisoned, it is simply a judgment of society upon him that he is so mischievous to the society that he must be segregated from it. His punishment is a warning to him to reform himself, just exactly like the penalties inflicted by God and nature on vice. A man who has committed crime is, therefore, a burden on society and an injury to it. He is a destructive and not a productive force and everybody is worse off for his existence than if he did not exist. Whence, then, does he obtain a right to be taught or reformed at the public expense? The whole question of what to do with him is one of expediency, and it embraces the whole range of possible policies from that of execution to that of education and reformation, but when the expediency of reformatory attempts is discussed we always forget the labor and expense and who must pay. All that the state does for the criminal, beyond forcing him to earn his living, is done at the expense of the industrious member of society who never costs the state anything for correction and discipline. If a man who has gone astray can be reclaimed in any way, no one would hinder such a work, but people whose minds are full of sympathy and interest for criminals and who desire to adopt some systematic plans of reformatory efforts are only, once more, trampling on the Forgotten Man.

Let us look at another case. If there is a public office to be filled, of course a great number of persons come forward as candidates for it. Many of these persons are urged as candidates on the ground that they are badly off, or that they cannot support themselves, or that they want to earn a living while educating themselves, or that they have female relatives dependent on them, or for some other reason of a similar kind. In other cases, candidates are presented and urged on the ground of their kinship to somebody, or on account of service, it may be meritorious service, in some other line than that of the duty to be performed. Men are proposed for clerkships on the ground of service in the army twenty years ago, or for customhouse inspectors on the ground of public services in the organization of political parties. If public positions are granted on these grounds of sentiment or favoritism, the abuse is to be condemned on the ground of the harm done to the public interest; but I now desire to point out another thing which is constantly forgotten. If you give a position to A, you cannot give it to B. If A is an object of sentiment or favoritism and not a person fit and competent to fulfill the duty, who is B? He is somebody who has nothing but merit on his side, somebody who has no powerful friends, no political influence, some quiet, unobtrusive individual who has known no other way to secure the chances of life than simply to deserve them. Here we have the Forgotten Man again, and once again we find him worthy of all respect and consideration, but passed by in favor of the noisy, pushing, and incompetent. Who ever remembers that if you give a place to a man who is unfit for it you are keeping out of it somebody, somewhere, who is fit for it?

Let us take another case. A trades-union is an association of journeymen in a certain trade which has for one of its chief objects to raise wages in that trade. This object can be accomplished only by drawing more capital into the trade, or by lessening the supply of labor in it. To do the latter, the trades-unions limit the number of apprentices who may be admitted to the trade. In discussing this device, people generally fix their minds on the beneficiaries of this arrangement. It is desired by everybody that wages should be as high as they can be under the conditions of industry. Our minds are directed by the facts of the case to the men who are in the trade already and are seeking their own advantage. Sometimes people go on to notice the effects of trades-unionism on the employers, but although employers are constantly vexed by it, it is seen that they soon count it into the risks of their business and settle down to it philosophically. Sometimes people go further then and see that, if the employer adds the trades union and strike risk to the other risks, he submits to it because he has passed it along upon the public and that the public wealth is diminished by trades-unionism, which is undoubtedly the case. I do not remember, however, that I have ever seen in print any analysis and observation of trades-unionism which takes into account its effect in another direction. The effect on employers or on the public would not raise wages. The public pays more for houses and goods, but that does not raise wages. The surplus paid by the public is pure loss, because it is only paid to cover an extra business risk of the employer. If their trades-unions raise wages, how do they do it? They do it by lessening the supply of labor in the trade, and this they do by limiting the number of apprentices. All that is won, therefore, for those in the trade, is won at the expense of those persons in the same class in life who want to get into the trade but are forbidden. Like every other monopoly, this one secures advantages for those who are in only at a greater loss to those who are kept out. Who, then, are those who are kept out and who are always forgotten in all the discussions? They are the Forgotten Men again; and what kind of men are they? They are those young men who want to earn their living by the trade in question. Since they select it, it is fair to suppose that they are fit for it, would succeed at it, and would benefit society by practicing it; but they are arbitrarily excluded from it and are perhaps pushed down into the class of unskilled laborers. When people talk of the success of a trades-union in raising wages, they forget these persons who have really, in a sense, paid the increase.

Let me now turn your attention to another class of cases. I have shown how, in time past, the history of states has been a history of selfishness, cupidity, and robbery, and I have affirmed that now and always the problems of government are how to deal with these same vices of human nature. People are always prone to believe that there is something metaphysical and sentimental about civil affairs, but there is not. Civil institutions are constructed to protect, either directly or indirectly, the property of men and the honor of women against the vices and passions of human nature. In our day and country, the problem presents new phases, but it is there just the same as it ever was, and the problem is only the more difficult for us because of its new phase which prevents us from recognizing it. In fact, our people are raving and struggling against it in a kind of blind way, not yet having come to recognize it. More than half of their blows, at present, are misdirected and fail of their object, but they will be aimed better by and by. There is a great deal of clamor about watering stocks and the power of combined capital, which is not very intelligent or well-directed. The evil and abuse which people are groping after in all these denunciations is jobbery.

By jobbery I mean the constantly apparent effort to win wealth, not by honest and independent production, but by some sort of a scheme for extorting other people's product from them. A large part of our legislation consists in making a job for somebody. Public buildings are jobs, not always, but in most cases. The buildings are not needed at all or are costly far beyond what is useful or even decently luxurious. Internal improvements are jobs. They are carried out, not because they are needed in themselves, but because they will serve the turn of some private interest, often incidentally that of the very legislators who pass the appropriations for them. A man who wants a farm, instead of going out where there is plenty of land available for it, goes down under the Mississippi River to make a farm, and then wants his fellow-citizens to be taxed to dyke the river so as to keep it off his farm. The Californian hydraulic miners have washed the gold out of the hillsides and have washed the dirt down into the valleys to the ruin of the rivers and the farms. They want the federal government to remove this dirt at the national expense. The silver miners, finding that their product is losing value in the market, get the government to go into the market as a great buyer in the hope of sustaining the price. The national government is called upon to buy or hire unsalable ships; to dig canals which will not pay; to educate illiterates in the states which have not done their duty at the expense of the states which have done their duty as to education; to buy up telegraphs which no longer pay; and to provide the capital for enterprises of which private individuals are to win the profits. We are called upon to squander twenty millions on swamps and creeks; from twenty to sixty-six millions on the Mississippi River; one hundred millions in pensions — and there is now a demand for another hundred million beyond that. This is the great plan of all living on each other. The pensions in England used to be given to aristocrats who had political power, in order to corrupt them. Here the pensions are given to the great democratic mass who have the political power, in order to corrupt them. We have one hundred thousand federal office-holders and I do not know how many state and municipal office-holders. Of course public officers are necessary and it is an economical organization of society to set apart some of its members for civil functions, but if the number of persons drawn from production and supported by the producers while engaged in civil functions is in undue proportion to the total population, there is economic loss. If public offices are treated as spoils or benefices or sinecures, then they are jobs and only constitute part of the pillage.

The biggest job of all is a protective tariff. This device consists in delivering every man over to be plundered by his neighbor and in teaching him to believe that it is a good thing for him and his country because he may take his turn at plundering the rest. Mr. Kelley said that if the internal revenue taxes on whisky and tobacco, which are paid to the United Stages government, were not taken off, there would be a rebellion. Just then it was discovered that Sumatra tobacco was being imported, and the Connecticut tobacco men hastened to Congress to get a tax laid on it for their advantage. So it appears that if a tax is laid on tobacco, to be paid to the United States, there will be a rebellion, but if a tax is laid on it to be paid to the fanners of the Connecticut Valley, there will be no rebellion at all. The tobacco farmers having been taxed for protected manufactures are now to be taken into the system, and the workmen in the factories are to be taxed on their tobacco to protect the farmers. So the system is rendered more complete and comprehensive.

On every hand you find this jobbery. The government is to give every man a pension, and every man an office, and every man a tax to raise the price of his product, and to clean out every man's creek for him, and to buy all his unsalable property, and to provide him with plenty of currency to pay his debts, and to educate his children, and to give him the use of a library and a park and a museum and a gallery of pictures. On every side the doors of waste and extravagance stand open; and spend, squander, plunder, and grab are the watchwords. We grumble some about it and talk about the greed of corporations and the power of capital and the wickedness of stock gambling. Yet we elect the legislators who do all this work. Of course, we should never think of blaming ourselves for electing men to represent and govern us, who, if I may use a slang expression, give us away. What man ever blamed himself for his misfortune? We groan about monopolies and talk about more laws to prevent the wrongs done by chartered corporations. Who made the charters? Our representatives. Who elected such representatives? We did. How can we get bad law-makers to make a law which shall prevent bad law-makers from making a bad law? That is, really, what we are trying to do. If we are a free, self-governing people, all our misfortunes come right home to ourselves and we can blame nobody else. Is any one astonished to find that men are greedy, whether they are incorporated or not? Is it a revelation to find that we need, in our civil affairs, to devise guarantees against selfishness, rapacity, and fraud? I have ventured to affirm that government has never had to deal with anything else.

Now, I have said that this jobbery means waste, plunder, and loss, and I defined it at the outset as the system of making a chance to extort part of his product from somebody else. Now comes the question: Who pays for it all? The system of plundering each other soon destroys all that it deals with. It produces nothing. Wealth comes only from production, and all that the wrangling grabbers, loafers, and jobbers get to deal with comes from somebody's toil and sacrifice. Who, then, is he who provides it all? Go and find him and you will have once more before you the Forgotten Man. You will find him hard at work because he has a great many to support. Nature has done a great deal for him in giving him a fertile soil and an excellent climate and he wonders why it is that, after all, his scale of comfort is so moderate. He has to get out of the soil enough to pay all his taxes, and that means the cost of all the jobs and the fund for all the plunder. The Forgotten Man is delving away in patient industry, supporting his family, paying his taxes, casting his vote, supporting the church and the school, reading his newspaper, and cheering for the politician of his admiration, but he is the only one for whom there is no provision in the great scramble and the big divide.

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.

When you go to Willimantic, they will show you with great pride the splendid thread mills there. I am told that there are sewing-women who can earn only fifty cents in twelve hours, and provide the thread. In the cost of every spool of thread more than one cent is tax. It is paid, not to get the thread, for you could get the thread without it. It is paid to get the Willimantic linen company which is not worth having and which is, in fact, a nuisance, because it makes thread harder to get than it would be if there were no such concern. If a woman earns fifty cents in twelve hours, she earns a spool of thread as nearly as may be in an hour, and if she uses a spool of thread per day, she works a quarter of an hour per day to support the Willimantic linen company, which in 1882 paid 95 per cent dividend to its stockholders. If you go and look at the mill, it will captivate your imagination until you remember all the women in all the garrets, and all the artisans' and laborers' wives and children who are spending their hours of labor, not to get goods which they need, but to pay for the industrial system which only stands in their way and makes it harder for them to get the goods.

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 hard-hearted skeptic towards all artificial schemes of social amelioration. 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.

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 mediaeval 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.



William Graham Sumner, “On the Case of a Certain Man who is never thought of” (1884)

Editing History

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William Graham Sumner, War and Other Essays, ed. Albert Galloway Keller (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1919). 9/2/2016. <>

- “XI: On the Case of a Certain Man who is never thought of” (1884) <>

Editor's Intro



The type and formula of most schemes of philan-thropy or humanitarianism is this: A and B put their heads together to decide what C shall be made to do for D. The radical vice of all these schemes, from a sociological point of view, is that C is not allowed a voice in the matter, and his position, character, and interests, as well as the ultimate effects on society through C's interests, are entirely overlooked. I call C the Forgotten Man. For once let us look him up and consider his case, for the characteristic of all social doctors is that they fix their minds on some man or group of men whose case appeals to the sympathies and the imagination, and they plan remedies addressed to the particular trouble; they do not understand that all the parts of society hold together and that forces which are set in action act and react throughout the whole organism until an equilibrium is produced by a readjustment of all interests and rights. They therefore ignore entirely the source from which they must draw all the energy which they employ in their remedies, and they ignore all the effects on other members of society than the ones they have in view. They are always under the dominion of the superstition of government, and forgetting that a government produces nothing at all, they leave out of sight the first fact to be remembered in all social discussion — that the state cannot get a cent for any man without taking it from some other man, and this latter must be a man who has produced and saved it. This latter is the Forgotten Man.

The friends of humanity start out with certain benevolent feelings towards “the poor,” “the weak,” “the laborers,” and others of whom they make pets. They generalize these classes and render them impersonal, and so constitute the classes into social pets. They turn to other classes and appeal to sympathy and generosity and to all the other noble sentiments of the human heart. Action in the line proposed consists in a transfer of capital from the better off to the worse off. Capital, however, as we have seen, is the force by which civilization is maintained and carried on. The same piece of capital cannot be used in two ways. Every bit of capital, therefore, which is given to a shiftless and inefficient member of society who makes no return for it is diverted from a reproductive use; but if it was put to reproductive use, it would have to be granted in wages to an efficient and productive laborer. Hence the real sufferer by that kind of benevolence which consists in an expenditure of capital to protect the good-for-nothing is the industrious laborer. The latter, however, is never thought of in this connection. It is assumed that he is provided for and out of the account. Such a notion only shows how little true notions of political economy have as yet become popularized. There is an almost invincible prejudice that a man who gives a dollar to a beggar is generous and kind-hearted, but that a man who refuses the beggar and puts the dollar in a savings-bank is stingy and mean. The former is putting capital where it is very sure to be wasted, and where it will be a kind of seed for a long succession of future dollars, which must be wasted to ward off a greater strain on the sympathies than would have been occasioned by a refusal in the first place. Inasmuch as the dollar might have been turned into capital and given to a laborer who, while earning it, would have reproduced it, it must be regarded as taken from the latter. When a millionaire gives a dollar to a beggar, the gain of utility to the beggar is enormous and the loss of utility to the millionaire is insignificant. Generally the discussion is allowed to rest there. But if the millionaire makes capital of the dollar, it must go upon the labor market as a demand for productive services. Hence there is another party in interest — the person who supplies productive services. There always are two parties. The second one is always the Forgotten Man, and anyone who wants to understand truly the matter in question must go and search for the Forgotten Man. He will be found to be worthy, industrious, independent, and self-supporting. He is not, technically, “poor” or “weak”; he minds his own business and makes no complaint. Consequently the philanthropists never think of him and trample on him.

We hear a great deal of schemes for “improving the condition of the working-man.” In the United States the farther down we go in the grade of labor, the greater is the advantage which the laborer has over the higher classes. A hod-carrier or digger here can, by one day's labor, command many times more days' labor of a carpenter, surveyor, bookkeeper, or doctor than an unskilled laborer in Europe could command by one day's labor. The same is true, in a less degree, of the carpenter, as compared with the bookkeeper, surveyor, and doctor. This is why the United States is the great country for the unskilled laborer. The economic conditions all favor that class. There is a great continent to be subdued and there is a fertile soil available to labor, with scarcely any need of capital. Hence the people who have the strong arms have what is most needed, and if it were not for social consideration, higher education would not pay. Such being the case, the working-man needs no improvement in his condition except to be freed from the parasites who are living on him. All schemes for patronizing “the working classes” savor of condescension. They are impertinent and out of place in this free democracy. There is not, in fact, any such state of things or any such relation as would make projects of this kind appropriate. Such projects demoralize both parties, flattering the vanity of one and undermining the self-respect of the other.

For our present purpose it is most important to notice that if we lift any man up we must have a fulcrum or point of reaction. In society that means that to lift one man up we push another down. The schemes for improving the condition of the working classes interfere in the competition of workmen with each other. The beneficiaries are selected by favoritism and are apt to be those who have recommended themselves to the friends of humanity by language or conduct which does not betoken independence and energy. Those who suffer a corresponding depression by the interference are the independent and self-reliant, who once more are forgotten or passed over; and the friends of humanity once more appear, in their zeal to help somebody, to be trampling on those who are trying to help themselves.

Trades-unions adopt various devices for raising wages, and those who give their time to philanthropy are interested in these devices and wish them success. They fix their minds entirely on the workmen for the time being in the trade and do not take note of any other workmen as interested in the matter. It is supposed that the fight is between the workmen and their employers, and it is believed that one can give sympathy in that contest to the workmen without feeling responsibility for anything farther. It is soon seen, however, that the employer adds the trades-union and strike risk to the other risks of his business and settles down to it philosophically because he has passed the loss along on the public. It then appears that the public wealth has been diminished and that the danger of a trade war, like the danger of a revolution, is a constant reduction of the well-being of all. So far, however, we have seen only things which could lower wages — nothing which could raise them. The employer is worried, but that does not raise wages. The public loses, but the loss goes to cover extra risk, and that does not raise wages.

Aside from legitimate and economic means,1 a trades-union raises wages by restricting the number of apprentices who may be taken into the trade. This device acts directly on the supply of laborers, and that produces effects on wages. If, however, the number of apprentices is limited, some are kept out who want to get in. Those who are in have, therefore, made a monopoly and constituted themselves a privileged class on a basis exactly analogous to that of the old privileged aristocracies. But whatever is gained by this arrangement for those who are in is won at a greater loss to those who are kept out. Hence it is not upon the masters nor upon the public that trades-unions exert the pressure by which they raise wages; it is upon other persons of the labor class who want to get into the trades, but, not being able to do so, are pushed down into the unskilled labor class. These persons, however, are passed by entirely without notice in all the discussions about trades-unions. They are the Forgotten Men. But since they want to get into the trade and win their living in it, it is fair to suppose that they are fit for it, would succeed at it, would do well for themselves and society in it; that is to say, that of all persons interested or concerned, they most deserve our sympathy and attention.

The cases already mentioned involve no legislation. Society, however, maintains police, sheriffs, and various institutions, the object of which is to protect people against themselves — that is, against their own vices. Almost all legislative effort to prevent vice is really protective of vice, because all such legislation saves the vicious man from the penalty of his vice. Nature's remedies against vice are terrible. She removes the victims without pity. A drunkard in the gutter is just where he ought to be, according to the fitness and tendency of things. Nature has set up in him the process of decline and dissolution by which she removes things which have survived their usefulness. Gambling and other less mentionable vices carry their own penalties with them.

Now we never can annihilate a penalty. We can only divert it from the head of the man who has incurred it to the heads of others who have not incurred it. A vast amount of “social reform” consists in just this operation. The consequence is that those who have gone astray, being relieved from nature's fierce discipline, go on to worse, and that there is a constantly heavier burden for the others to bear. Who are the others? When we see a drunkard in the gutter we pity him. If a policeman picks him up, we say that society has interfered to save him from perishing. “Society” is a fine word, and it saves us the trouble of thinking. The industrious and sober workman, who is mulcted of a percentage of his day's wages to pay the policeman, is the one who bears the penalty. But he is the Forgotten Man. He passes by and is never noticed, because he has behaved himself, fulfilled his contracts, and asked for nothing.

The fallacy of all prohibitory, sumptuary, and moral legislation is the same. A and B determine to be teetotalers, which is often a wise determination, and sometimes a necessary one. If A and B are moved by considerations which seem to them good, that is enough. But A and B put their heads together to get a law passed which shall force C to be a teetotaler for the sake of D, who is in danger of drinking too much. There is no pressure on A and B. They are having their own way, and they like it. There is rarely any pressure on D. He does not like it, and evades it. The pressure all comes on C. The question then arises, Who is C? He is the man who wants alcoholic liquors for any honest purpose whatsoever, who would use his liberty without abusing it, who would occasion no public question and trouble nobody at all. He is the Forgotten Man again, and as soon as he is drawn from his obscurity we see that he is just what each one of us ought to be.


Noted in Chapter VI of Sumner's What Social Classes Owe to Each Other.


William Graham Sumner, “The Case of the Forgotten Man farther considered” (no date)

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William Graham Sumner, What Social Classes Owe to Each Other, (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1911). 9/2/2016. <>

- [on jobbery - “The greatest social evil with which we have to contend is jobbery”] “X.: The Case of the Forgotten Man farther considered” (no date) <>

Editor's Intro



There is a beautiful notion afloat in our literature and in the minds of our people that men are born to certain “natural rights.” If that were true, there would be something on earth which was got for nothing, and this world would not be the place it is at all. The fact is, that there is no right whatever inherited by man which has not an equivalent and corresponding duty by the side of it. The rights, advantages, capital, knowledge, and all other goods which we inherit from past generations have been won by the struggles and sufferings of past generations; and the fact that the race lives, though men die, and that the race can by heredity accumulate within some cycle its victories over nature, is one of the facts which make civilization possible. The struggles of the race as a whole produce the possessions of the race as a whole. Something for nothing is not to be found on earth.

If there were such things as natural rights, the question would arise, Against whom ale they good? Who has the corresponding obligation to satisfy these rights? There can be no rights against nature, except to get out of her whatever we can, which is only the fact of the struggle for existence stated over again. The common assertion is that the rights are good against society; that is, that society is bound to obtain and secure them for the persons interested. Society, however, is only the persons interested plus some other persons; and as the persons interested have by the hypothesis failed to win the rights, we come to this, that natural rights are the claims which certain persons have by prerogative against some other persons. Such is the actual interpretation in practice of natural rights — claims which some people have by prerogative on other people.

This theory is a very far-reaching one, and of course it is adequate to furnish a foundation for a whole social philosophy. In its widest extension it comes to mean that if any man finds himself uncomfortable in this world it must be somebody else's fault, and that somebody is bound to come and make him comfortable. Now the people who are most uncomfortable in this world — for if we should tell all our troubles it would not be found to be a very comfortable world for anybody — are those who have neglected their duties, and consequently have failed to get their rights. The people who can be called upon to serve the uncomfortable must be those who have done their duty, as the world goes, tolerably well. Consequently the doctrine which we are discussing turns out to be in practice only a scheme for making injustice prevail in human society by reversing the distribution of rewards and punishments between those who have done their duty and those who have not.

We are constantly preached at by our public teachers as if respectable people were to blame because some people are not respectable — as if the man who has done his duty in his own sphere was responsible in some way for another man who has not done his duty in his sphere. There are relations of employer and employee which need to be regulated by compromise and treaty. There are sanitary precautions which need to be taken in factories and houses. There are precautions against fire which are necessary. There is care needed that children be not employed too young, and that they have an education. There is cared needed that banks, insurance companies, and railroads be well managed, and that officers do not abuse their trusts. There is a duty in each case on the interested parties to defend their own interest. The penalty of neglect is suffering. The system of providing for these things by boards and inspectors throws the cost of it, not on the interested parties, but on the tax-payers. Some of them, no doubt, are the interested parties, and they may consider that they are exercising the proper care by paying taxes to support an inspector. If so, they only get their fair deserts when the railroad inspector finds out that a bridge is not safe after it is broken down, or when the bank examiner comes in to find out why a bank failed after the cashier has stolen all the funds. The real victim is the Forgotten Man again — the man who has watched his own investments, made his own machinery safe, attended to his own plumbing, and educated his own children, and who, just when he wants to enjoy the fruits of his care, is told that it is his duty to go and take care of some of his negligent neighbors, or, if he does not go, to pay an inspector to go. No doubt it is often his interest to go or to send, rather than to have the matter neglected, on account of his own connection with the thing neglected and his own secondary peril; but the point now is, that if preaching and philosophizing can do any good in the premises, it is all wrong to preach to the Forgotten Man that it is his duty to go and remedy other people's neglect. It is not his duty. It is a harsh and unjust burden which is laid upon him, and it is only the more unjust because no one thinks of him when laying the burden so that it falls on him. The exhortations ought to be expended on the negligent — that they take care of themselves.

It is an especially vicious extension of the false doctrine above mentioned that criminals have some sort of a right against or claim on society. Many reformatory plans are based on a doctrine of this kind when they are urged upon the public conscience. A criminal is a man who, instead of working with and for the society, has turned against it and become destructive and injurious. His punishment means that society rules him out of its membership and separates him from its association, by execution or imprisonment, according to the gravity of his offense. He has no claims against society at all. What shall be done with him is a question of expediency to be settled in view of the interests of society — that is, of the non-criminals. The French writers of the school of '48 used to represent the badness of the bad men as the fault of “society.” As the object of this statement was to show that the badness of the bad men was not the fault of the bad men, and as society contains only good men and bad men, it followed that the badness of the bad men was the fault of the good men. On that theory of course the good men owed a great deal to the bad men who were in prison and at the galleys on their account. If we do not admit that theory, it behooves us to remember that any claim which we allow to the criminal against the “state” is only so much burden laid upon those who have never cost the State anything for discipline or correction. The punishments of society are just, like those of God and nature — they are warnings to the wrong-doer to reform himself.

When public offices are to be filled numerous candidates at once appear. Some are urged on the ground that they are poor, or cannot earn a living, or want support while getting an education, or have female relatives dependent on them, or are in poor health, or belong in a particular district, or are related to certain persons, or have done meritorious service in some other line of work than that which they apply to do. The abuses of the public service are to be condemned on account of the harm to the public interest, but there is an incidental injustice of the same general character with that which we are discussing. If an office is granted by favoritism or for any personal reason to A, it cannot be given to B. If an office is filled by a person who is unfit for it, he always keeps out somebody somewhere who is fit for it; that is, the social injustice has a victim in an unknown person — the Forgotten Man — and he is some person who has no political influence, and who has known no way in which to secure the chances of life except to deserve them. He is passed by for the noisy, pushing, importunate, and incompetent.

I have said elsewhere, disparagingly, something about the popular rage against combined capital, corporations, corners, selling futures, etc. The popular rage is not without reason, but it is sadly misdirected, and the real things which deserve attack are thriving all the time. The greatest social evil with which we have to contend is jobbery. Whatever there is in legislative charters, watering stocks, and so on which is objectionable comes under the head of jobbery. Jobbery is 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 under guise of some pretended industrial undertaking. Of course it is only a modification when the undertaking in question has some legitimate character, but the occasion is used to graft upon it devices for obtaining what has not been earned. Jobbery is the vice of plutocracy, and it is the especial form under which plutocracy corrupts a democratic and republican form of government. The United States is deeply afflicted with it, and the problem of civil liberty here is to conquer it. It affects everything which we really need to have done to such an extent that we have to do without public objects which we need through fear of jobbery. Our public buildings are jobs — not always, but often. They are not needed, or are costly beyond all necessity or even decent luxury. Internal improvements are jobs. They are not made because they are needed to meet needs which have been experienced. They are made to serve private ends, often incidentally the political interests of the persons who vote the appropriations. Pensions have become jobs. In England pensions used to be given to aristocrats, because aristocrats had political influence, in order to corrupt them. Here pensions are given to the great democratic mass, because they have political power, to corrupt them. Instead of going out where there is plenty of land and making a farm there, some people go down under the Mississippi River to make a farm, and then they want to tax all the people in the United States to make dikes to keep the river off their farms. The California gold-miners have washed out gold and have washed the dirt down into the rivers and on the farms below. They want the Federal Government to clean out the rivers now and restore the farms. The silver-miners found their product declining in value and they got the Federal Government to go into the market and buy what the public did not want, in order to sustain, as they hoped, the price of silver. The Federal Government is called upon to buy or hire unsalable ships, to build canals which will not pay, to furnish capital for all sorts of experiments, and to provide capital for enterprises of which private individuals will win the profits. All this is called “developing our resources,” but it is, in truth, the great plan of all living on each other.

The greatest job of all is a protective tariff. It includes the biggest log-rolling and the widest corruption of economic and political ideas. It was said that there would be a rebellion if the taxes were not taken off whisky and tobacco, which taxes were paid into the public Treasury. Just then the importations of Sumatra tobacco became important enough to affect the market. The Connecticut tobacco-growers at once called for an import duty on tobacco which would keep up the price of their product. So it appears that if the tax on tobacco is paid to the Federal Treasury there will be a rebellion, but if it is paid to the Connecticut tobacco-raisers there will be no rebellion at all. The farmers have long paid tribute to the manufacturers; now the manufacturing and other laborers are to pay tribute to the farmers. The system is made more comprehensive and complete and we are all living on each other more than ever.

Now the plan of plundering each other produces nothing. It only wastes. All the material over which the protected interests wrangle and grab must be got from somebody outside of their circle. The talk is all about the American laborer and American industry, but in every case in which there is not an actual production of wealth by industry there are two laborers and two industries to be considered — the one who gets and the one who gives. Every protected industry has to plead, as the major premise of its argument, that any industry which does not pay ought to be carried on at the expense of the consumers of the product, and as its minor premise, that the industry in question does not pay; that is, that it cannot reproduce a capital equal in value to that which it consumes plus the current rate of profit. Hence every such industry must be a parasite on some other industry. What is the other industry? Who is the other man? This, the real question, is always overlooked.

In all jobbery the case is the same. There is a victim somewhere who is paying for it all. The doors of waste and extravagance stand open, and there seems to be a general agreement to squander and spend. It all belongs to somebody. There is somebody who had to contribute it and who will have to find more. Nothing is ever said about him. Attention is all absorbed by the clamorous interests, the importunate petitioners, the plausible schemers, the pitiless bores. Now, who is the victim? He is the Forgotten Man. If we go to find him, we shall find him hard at work tilling the soil to get out of it the fund for all the jobbery, the object of all the plunder, the cost of all the economic quackery, and the pay of all the politicians and statesmen who have sacrificed his interests to his enemies. We shall find him an honest, sober, industrious citizen, unknown outside his little circle, paying his debts and his taxes, supporting the church and the school, reading his party newspaper, and cheering for his pet politician.

We must not overlook the fact that the Forgotten Man is not infrequently a woman. I have before me a newspaper which contains five letters from corset-stitchers who complain that they cannot earn more than seventy-five cents a day with a machine and that they have to provide the thread. The tax on the grade of thread used by them is prohibitory as to all importation, and it is the corset-stitchers who have to pay day by day out of their time and labor the total enhancement of price due to the tax. Women who earn their own living probably earn on an average seventy-five cents per day of ten hours. Twenty-four minutes' work ought to buy a spool of thread at the retail price, if the American workwoman were allowed to exchange her labor for thread on the best terms that the art and commerce of to-day would allow; but after she has done twenty-four minutes' work for the thread she is forced by the laws of her country to go back and work sixteen minutes longer to pay the tax — that is, to support the thread-mill. The thread-mill, therefore, is not an institution for getting thread for the American people, but for making thread harder to get than it would be if there were no such institution.

In justification, now, of an arrangement so monstrously unjust and out of place in a free country, it is said that the employes in the thread-mill get high wages and that, but for the tax, American laborers must come down to the low wages of foreign thread-makers. It is not true that American thread-makers get any more than the market rate of wages, and they would not get less if the tax were entirely removed, because the market rate of wages in the United States would be controlled then, as it is now, by the supply and demand of laborers under the natural advantages and opportunities of industry in this country. It makes a great impression on the imagination, however, to go to a manufacturing town and see great mills and a crowd of operatives; and such a sight is put forward, under the special allegation that it would not exist but for a protective tax, as a proof that protective taxes are wise. But if it be true that the thread-mill would not exist but for the tax, then how can we form a judgment as to whether the protective system is wise or not unless we call to mind all the seamstresses, washer-women, servants, factory-hands, sales-women, teachers, and laborers' wives and daughters, scattered in the garrets and tenements of great cities and in cottages all over the country, who are paying the tax which keeps the mill going and pays the extra wages? If the sewing-women, teachers, servants, and washerwomen could once be collected over against the thread-mill, then some inferences could be drawn which would be worth something. Then some light might be thrown upon the obstinate fallacy of “creating an industry” and we might begin to understand the difference between wanting thread and wanting a thread-mill. Some nations spend capital on great palaces, others on standing armies, others on iron-clad ships of war. Those things are all glorious and strike the imagination with great force when they are seen, but no one doubts that they make life harder for the scattered insignificant peasants and laborers who have to pay for them all. They “support a great many people,” they “make work,” they “give employment to other industries.” We Americans have no palaces, armies, or iron-clads, but we spend our earnings on protected industries. A big protected factory, if it really needs the protection for its support, is a heavier load for the Forgotten Men and Women than an iron-clad ship of war in time of peace.

It is plain that the Forgotten Man and the Forgotten Woman are the real productive strength of the country. The Forgotten Man works and votes — generally he prays — but his chief business in life is to pay. His name never gets into the newspapers except when he marries or dies. He is an obscure man. He may grumble sometimes to his wife, but he does not frequent the grocery, and he does not talk politics at the tavern. So he is forgotten. Yet who is there whom the statesman, economist, and social philosopher ought to think of before this man? If any student of social science comes to appreciate the case of the Forgotten Man, he will become an unflinching advocate of strict scientific thinking in sociology and a hard-hearted skeptic as regards any scheme of social amelioration. He will always want to know, Who and where is the Forgotten Man in this case, who will have to pay for it all?

The Forgotten Man is not a pauper. It belongs to his character to save something. Hence he is a capitalist, though never a great one. He is a “poor” man in the popular sense of the word, but not in a correct sense. In fact, one of the most constant and trustworthy signs that the Forgotten Man is in danger of a new assault is that “the poor man” is brought into the discussion. Since the Forgotten Man has some capital, anyone who cares for his interest will try to make capital secure by securing the inviolability of contracts, the stability of currency, and the firmness of credit. Anyone, therefore, who cares for the Forgotten Man will be sure to be considered a friend of the capitalist and an enemy of the poor man.

It is the Forgotten Man who is threatened by every extension of the paternal theory of government. It is he who must work and pay. When, therefore, the statesmen and social philosophers sit down to think what the state can do or ought to do, they really mean to decide what the Forgotten Man shall do. What the Forgotten Man wants, therefore, is a fuller realization of constitutional liberty. He is suffering from the fact that there are yet mixed in our institutions mediaæval theories of protection, regulation, and authority, and modern theories of independence and individual liberty and responsibility. The consequence of this mixed state of things is that those who are clever enough to get into control use the paternal theory by which to measure their own rights — that is, they assume privileges — and they use the theory of liberty to measure their own duties; that is, when it comes to the duties, they want to be “let alone.” The Forgotten Man never gets into control. He has to pay both ways. His rights are measured to him by the theory of liberty — that is, he has only such as he can conquer; his duties are measured to him on the paternal theory — that is, he must discharge all which are laid upon him, as is the fortune of parents. In a paternal edlation there are always two parties, a father and a child; and when we use the paternal relation metaphorically, it is of the first importance to know who is to be father and who is to be child. The r&ocirc;le of parent falls always to the Forgotten Man. What he wants, therefore, is that ambiguities in our institutions be cleared up and that liberty be more fully realized.

It behooves any economist or social philosopher, whatever be the grade of his orthodoxy, who proposes to enlarge the sphere of the “state,” or to take any steps whatever having in view the welfare of any class whatever, to pursue the analysis of the social effects of his proposition until he finds that other group whose interests must be curtailed or whose energies must be placed under contribution by the course of action which he proposes, and he cannot maintain his proposition until he has demonstrated that it will be more advantageous, both quantitatively and qualitatively, to those who must bear the weight of it than complete non-interference by the state with the relations of the parties in question.



William Graham Sumner, “What make the Rich Richer and the Poor Poorer?” (1887)

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William Graham Sumner, The Challenge of Facts and other Essays, ed. Albert Galloway Keller (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1914). 9/2/2016. <>

- “What make the Rich Richer and the Poor Poorer?” (1887) <> [originally in Popular Science Monthly, Vol. XXX, 1887, pp. 289–296.]

Editor's Intro



Karl Marx says, “An accumulation of wealth at one pole of society indicates an accumulation of misery and overwork at the other.”2 In this assertion, Marx avoids the very common and mischievous fallacy of confusing causes, consequences, and symptoms. He suggests that what is found at one pole indicates, or is a symptom of what may be found at the other. In the development of his criticisms on political economy and the existing organization of society, however, Marx proceeds as if there were a relation of cause and effect in the proposition just quoted, and his followers and popularizers have assumed as an indisputable postulate that the wealth of some is a cause of the poverty of others. The question of priority or originality as between Marx, Rodbertus, and others is at best one of vanity between them and their disciples,3 but it is of great interest and importance to notice that the doctrine that wealth at one pole makes misery at the other is the correct logical form of the notion that progress and poverty are correlative. This doctrine rests upon another and still more fundamental one, which is not often formulated, but which can be detected in most of the current socialistic discussions, viz., that all the capital which is here now would be here under any laws or institutions about property, as if it were due to some independent cause; and that some have got ahead of others and seized upon the most of it, so that those who came later have not been able to get any. If this notion about the source of capital is not true, then wealth at one pole cannot cause poverty at the other. If it is true, then we can make any regulations we like about the distribution of wealth, without fear lest the measures which we adopt may prevent any wealth from being produced.

In Rome, under the empire, wealth at one pole was a symptom of misery at the other, because Rome was not an industrial state. Its income came from plunder. The wealth had a source independent of the production of the society of Rome. That part of the booty which some got, others could not have. No such thing is true of an industrial society. The wealth of the commercial cities of Italy and southern Germany, in the Middle Ages, was largely in the hands of merchant-princes. If one were told that some of these merchants were very rich, he would have no ground of inference that others in those cities must have been poor. The rich were those who developed the opportunities of commerce which were, in the first instance, open to all. What they gained came out of nothing which anybody else ever had or would have had. The fact that there are wealthy men in England, France, and the United States to-day is no evidence that there must be poor men here. The riches of the rich are perfectly consistent with the high condition of wealth of all, down to the last. In fact, the aggregations of wealth, both while being made and after realization, develop and sustain the prosperity of all. The forward movement of a strong population, with abundance of land and highly developed command by machinery over the forces of nature, must produce a state of society in which, misfortune and vice being left out of account, average and minimum comfort are high, while special aggregations may be enormous.

Whatever nexus there is between wealth at one pole and poverty at the other can be found only by turning the proposition into its converse — misery at one pole makes wealth at the other. If the mass at one pole should, through any form of industrial vice, fall into misery, they would offer to the few wise an opportunity to become rich by taking advantage of them. They would offer a large supply of labor at low wages, a high demand for capital at high rates of interest, and a fierce demand for land at high rent.

It is often affirmed, and it is true, that competition tends to disperse society over a wide range of unequal conditions. Competition develops all powers that exist according to their measure and degree. The more intense competition is, the more thoroughly are all the forces developed. If, then, there is liberty, the results can not be equal; they must correspond to the forces. Liberty of development and equality of result are therefore diametrically opposed to each other. If a group of men start on equal conditions, and compete in a common enterprise, the results which they attain must differ according to inherited powers, early advantages of training, personal courage, energy, enterprise, perseverance, good sense, etc., etc. Since these things differ through a wide range, and since their combinations may vary through a wide range, it is possible that the results may vary through a wide scale of degrees. Moreover, the more intense the competition, the greater are the prizes of success and the heavier are the penalties of failure. This is illustrated in the competition of a large city as compared with that of a small one. Competition can no more be done away with than gravitation. Its incidence can be changed. We can adopt as a social policy, “Woe to the successful!” We can take the prizes away from the successful and give them to the unsuccessful. It seems clear that there would soon be no prizes at all, but that inference is not universally accepted. In any event, it is plain that we have not got rid of competition — i.e., of the struggle for existence and the competition of life. We have only decided that, if we cannot all have equally, we will all have nothing.

Competition does not guarantee results corresponding with merit, because hereditary conditions and good and bad fortune are always intermingled with merit, but competition secures to merit all the chances it can enjoy under circumstances for which none of one's fellow-men are to blame.

Now it seems to be believed that although competition produces wide grades of inequality, yet almsgiving, or forcible repartition of wealth, would not do so. Here we come to the real, great, and mischievous fallacy of the social philosophy which is in vogue. Whether there are great extremes of rich and poor in a society is a matter of very little significance; there is no ground for the importance which is attached to that fact in current discussion. It is constantly affirmed in one form or another that, although one man has in half a lifetime greatly improved his own position, and can put his children in a far better condition than that in which he started, nevertheless he has not got his fair share in the gains of civilization, because his neighbor, who started where he did, has become a millionaire. John, who is eating a beefsteak off iron-stone china, finds that the taste of it is spoiled because he knows that James is eating pheasants off gold. William, who would have to walk anyway, finds that his feet ache a great deal worse because he learns that Peter has got a horse. Henry, whose yacht is twenty feet long, is sure that there is something wrong in society because Jacob has one a hundred feet long. These are weaknesses of human nature which have always been the fair game of the satirists, but in our day they are made the basis of a new philosophy and of a redistribution of rights and of property. If the laws and institutions of the society hinder any one from fighting out the battle of life on his or her own behalf to the best of one's ability, especially if they so hinder one to the advantage of another, the field of effort for intelligent and fruitful reform is at once marked out; but if examination should reveal no such operation of laws and institutions, then the inequality of achievements is no indication of any social disease, but the contrary.

The indication of social health or disease is to be sought in quite another fact. The question whether the society is formed of only two classes, the rich and the poor, the strong and the weak, or whether all the intervening grades are represented in a sound and healthy proportion, is a question which has importance because it furnishes indications of the state and prospects of the society. No society which consists of the two extreme classes only is in a sound and healthy condition.

If we regard the society of a new country, with little government regulation, free institutions, low taxes, and insignificant military duty, as furnishing us with the nearest example of a normal development of human society under civilization, then we must infer that such a society would not consist of two well-defined classes widely separated from each other, but that there would be no well-defined classes at all, although its members might, in their extremest range, be far apart in wealth, education, talent, and virtue. Such a society might, as it grew older, and its population became more dense, develop, under high competition, great extremes of economic power and social condition, but there is no reason to suppose that the whole middle range would not be filled up by the great mass of the population.

I have now cleared the ground for the proposition which it is my special purpose, in this paper, to offer:

It is the tendency of all social burdens to crush out the middle class, and to force the society into an organization of only two classes, one at each social extreme.

It is in the nature of the case impracticable to adjust social burdens proportionately to the power of individuals to support them. If this could be done, it is possible that the burdens might become great, even excessive, without producing the effect which I have stated. Since, however, it is impossible to so adjust them, and they must be laid on “equally” with reference to the unit of service, and not with reference to some unit of capacity to endure them, it follows that the effect must be as stated. So soon as the burden becomes so great that it surpasses the power of some part of the society, a division takes place between those who can and those who cannot endure it. At first, those who are close to this line, but just above it, are not far removed from those who are close to it, but just below it; but, as time goes on, and the pressure continues to operate, they are constantly separated from each other by a wider and wider interval.

Let us look at some of the historical facts which show us this law. If we take early Roman history as Mommsen relates it to us, we observe the constant recurrence of the difficulty which arose from the tendency of the society toward two extreme classes. It was plainly the pressure of military duty and taxes which was constantly developing two classes, debtors and creditors. The demands of the state fell upon different men in very different severity according to circumstances.1 One found himself just so well established that he could endure without being crushed. Another found that the time demanded, or the wound received, or the loss sustained by an inroad, or by being on an unsuccessful expedition, threw him back so that he fell into debt. The former, securing a foothold and gaining a little, bought a slave and established himself with a greater margin of security. Slavery, of course, mightily helped on the tendency. Twenty years later the second man was the bankrupt debtor and bondman of the first.

All insecurity of property has the same effect, above all, however, when the insecurity is produced by abuse of state power. In the later history of Rome, the Roman power, having conquered the world and dragged thousands born elsewhere into Italy as slaves, set to work to plunder its conquest. The booty taken by emperors, proconsuls, and freedmen-favorites, and by the sovereign city, was shared, through the largesses, with the proletariat of the city. The largesses and slavery worked together to divide the Romans into two classes. The plunder of the provinces intensified the wealth of the wealthy. The largesses pauperized and proletarianized the populace of the great city.2 They drew away citizens from the country and from honest industry, to swell the mob of the city. If a band of robbers should split into patricians and plebeians and divide the plunder unequally, it is plain that, as time went on, they must separate into two great factions, one immensely rich, the other miserably poor.1 As for the victims, although at first the severity and security of Roman law and order were not too dear even at the price which they cost, nevertheless the inevitable effect of robbery came out at last, and the whole Roman world was impoverished.2 Those only among the provincials could get or retain wealth who could gain favor with, or get on the side of the rulers. No satisfactory exposition of the political economy of the Roman commonwealth has yet been written. The effect of the Roman system on population, on the development of capital in the provinces, on the arts and sciences, on the distribution of the precious metals, on city population at Rome and Constantinople, on the development of talent and genius, offers lessons of profound importance, touching in many points on questions which now occupy us. The Roman Empire was a gigantic experiment in the way of a state which took from some to give to others. “At the beginning of the third century already the signs of a fatal loss of vitality manifested themselves with frightful distinctness, and spread with such rapidity that no sagacious observer could deceive himself any longer as to the beginning dissolution of the gigantic body.”1

All violence has the same elect. In the fifth and sixth centuries of our era, the general disorder and violence which prevailed gradually brought about a division of society on a line which, of course, wavered for a long time. A man who was strong enough in his circumstances to just maintain himself in such times became a lord; another, who could not maintain himself, sought safety by becoming the lord's man. As time went on, every retainer whom the former obtained made him seem a better man to be selected as lord; and, as time went on, any man who was weak but independent found his position more and more untenable.2

Taine's history shows distinctly that the middle class were the great sufferers by the French Revolution. Attention has always been arrested by the nobles who were robbed and guillotined. When, however, we get closer to the life of the period, we see that, taking the nation over for the years of the revolutionary disorder, the victims were those who had anything, from the peasant or small tradesman up to the well-to-do citizen.3 The rich bought their way through, and the nobles were replaced by a new gang of social parasites enriched by plunder and extortion. These last come nearer than any others whom history presents to the type of what the “committee” in a socialistic state may be expected to be.1

All almsgiving has the same effect, especially if it is forced by state authority. The Christian Church of the fourth and fifth centuries, by its indiscriminate almsgiving on a large scale, helped on the degeneration of the Roman state.2 A poor-law is only another case. The poor-rates, as they become heavier, at last drive into the workhouses the poorest of those who have hitherto maintained independence and paid poor-rates. With this new burden the chance of the next section upward to maintain themselves is imperiled, and so on indefinitely.

All taxation has the same effect. It presses hardest on those who, under the conditions of their position in life and the demands which are made upon them, are trying to save capital and improve their circumstances. The heavier it becomes, the faster it crushes out this class of persons — that is, all the great middle class — and the greater the barrier it sets up against any efforts of persons of that class to begin accumulation. If the taxes have for their object to take from some and give to others, as is the case with all protective taxes, we have only a more intense and obvious action in the same direction, and one whose effects must be far greater and sooner realized. The effect of protective taxes in this country, to drive out the small men and to throw special lines of industry into the hands of a few large capitalists, has been noted often. It is only a case of the law which I am defining.

My generalization might even be made broader. It is the tendency of all the hardships of life to destroy the middle class. Capital, as it grows larger, takes on new increments with greater and greater ease. It acquires a kind of momentum. The rich man, therefore, can endure the shocks of material calamity and misfortune with less distress the richer he is. A bad season may throw a small farmer into debt from which he can never recover. It may not do more to a large farmer than lessen one year's income. A few years of hard times may drive into bankruptcy a great number of men of small capital, while a man of large capital may tide over the distress and put himself in a position to make great gains when prosperity comes again.

The hardships and calamities which are strictly social are such as come from disorder, violence, insecurity, covetousness, envy, etc. The state has for its function to repress all these. It appears from what I have said that it is hard to maintain a middle class on a high stage of civilization. If the state does not do its work properly, such classes, representing the wide distribution of comfort and well-being, will die out. If the state itself gives license to robbery and spoliation, or enforces almsgiving, it is working to destroy the whole middle class, and to divide society into two great classes, the rich who are growing richer, not by industry but by spoliation, and the poor who are growing poorer, not by industrial weakness but by oppression.

Now, a state which is in any degree socialistic is in that degree on the line of policy whose disastrous effects have here been described. The state, it cannot too often be repeated, has nothing, and can give nothing, which it does not take from somebody. Its victims must be those who have earned and saved, and they must be the broad, strong, middle classes, from whom alone any important contributions can be drawn. They must be impoverished. Its pets, whoever they may be, must be pauperized and proletarianized. Its agents alone — that is, those who, in the name of the state, perform the operation of taking from some to give to others — can become rich, and if ever such a state should be organized they may realize wealth beyond the dreams of a proconsul.

To people untrained in the study of social forces it may appear the most obvious thing in the world that, if we should confiscate the property of those who have more than a determined amount, and divide the proceeds among those who have less than a certain amount, we should strengthen the middle class, and do away with the two extremes. The effect would be exactly the opposite. We should diminish the middle classes and strengthen the extremes. The more we helped at the bottom, the more we should have to help, not only on account of the increase of the population and the influx of eager members of “the house of want,” but also on account of the demoralization of the lowest sections of the middle class who were excluded. The more we confiscated at the top, the more craft and fraud would be brought into play to escape confiscation, and the wider must be the scope of taxation over the upper middle classes to obtain the necessary means.

The modern middle class has been developed with, and in, an industrial civilization. In turn they have taken control of this civilization and developed social and civil institutions to accord with it. The organization which they have made is now called, in the cant of a certain school, “capitalism” and a “capitalistic system.” It is the first organization of human society that ever has existed based on rights. By virtue of its own institutions, it now puts itself on trial and stands open to revision and correction whenever, on sober and rational grounds, revision can be shown to be necessary to guarantee the rights of any one. It is the first organization of human society that has ever tolerated dissent or criticism of itself. Nobles and peasants have never made anything but Poland and Russia. The proletariat has never made anything but revolution. The socialistic state holds out no promise that it will ever tolerate dissent. It will never consider the question of reform. It stands already on the same footing as all the old states. It knows that it is right, and all right. Of course, therefore, there is no place in it for reform. With extreme reconstructions of society, however, it may not be worth while to trouble ourselves; what we need to perceive is, that all socialistic measures, whatever their degree, have the same tendency and effect. It is they which may be always described as tending to make the rich richer and the poor poorer, and to extinguish the intervening classes.



Popular Science Monthly, Vol. XXX, 1887, pp. 289–296.


“Das Capital,” I, 671.


On this question see Anton Menger, “Das Recht auf den vollen Arbeitsertrag,” Stuttgart 1886. This writer traces back for a century the fundamental socialistic notions. He aims to develop the jural as distinguished from the economic aspect of socialism.


As to the heavy burdens of Roman citizenship, see Merivale, VIII, 284.


See Mommsen, book III, chapters XI, XII; book V, chapter XI; Poühlmann, “Die Ueberuülkerung der antiken Gross-Städte,” Leipzig, 1884.


See especially Friedländer, “Sittengeschichte,” I, 22: “In the enjoyment of the extravagant abundance of advantages, excitements, and spectacles, which the metropolis offered, the highest and lowest classes were best off. The great majority of the free male inhabitants were fed partly or entirely at public expense. The great found there an opportunity and means for a royal existence as nowhere else on earth. The middle classes were most exposed to the disadvantages of life at Rome.”


See Merivale, VIII, 351; Gibbon, chapter XXXVI, at the end.


Friedlaänder, I, preface. While reading the proof of this article, I have read Professor Boccardo's “Manuale di Storia del Comercio, delle Industrie e dell' Economia Politics” (Torino-Napoli, 1886), in which, pp. 74, 75, he expresses the same view as is above given more nearly than I have ever seen it elsewhere.


See Gibbon, chapter XXXVIII; Duruy, “Histoire du Moyen Age,” pp. 233, 234; Hallam's “Middle Ages,” chapter I, part II; Seebohm, “The English Village Community,” chapter VIII.


See Taine, vol. III, book V, chapter I.


See Taine, vol. III, book III, chapter III.


Pühlmann, p. 62.



William Graham Sumner, “State Interference” (1887)

Editing History

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William Graham Sumner, War and Other Essays, ed. Albert Galloway Keller (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1919). 9/2/2016. <>

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Editor's Intro



I desire, in this paper, to give an explanation and justification of extreme prejudice against State interference, and I wish to begin with a statement from history of the effect upon the individual of various forms of the State.

It appears, from the best evidence we possess, according to the most reasonable interpretation which has been given to it, that the internal organization of society owes its cohesion and intensity to the necessity of meeting pressure from without. A band of persons, bound by ties of neighborhood or kin, clung together in order to maintain their common interests against a similar band of their neighbors. The social bond and the common interest were at war with individual interests. They exerted coercive power to crush individualism, to produce uni-fortmity, to proscribe dissent, to make private judgment a social offense, and to exercise drill and discipline.

In the Roman State the internal discipline gave victory in contests with neighbors. Each member of the Roman community was carried up by the success of the body of which he was a member to the position of a world-conqueror. Then the Roman community split up into factions to quarrel for the spoils of the world, until the only escape from chronic civil war and anarchy was a one-man power, which, however, proved only a mode of disintegration and decay, not a cure for it. It has often been remarked with astonishment how lightly men and women of rank at Rome in the first century of our era held their lives. They seem to have been ready to open their veins at a moment's notice, and to quit life upon trivial occasion. If we can realize what life must have been in such a State we can, perhaps, understand this. The Emperor was the State. He was a mortal who had been freed from all care for the rights of others, and his own passions had all been set free. Any man or woman in the civilized world was at the mercy of his caprices. Anyone who was great enough to attract his attention, especially by the possession of anything which mortals covet, held his life at the utmost peril. Since the Empire was the world, there was no escape save to get out of the world. Many seemed to hold escape cheap at that price.

At first under the Empire the obscure people were safe. They probably had little to complain of, and found the Empire gay and beneficent; but it gradually and steadily absorbed every rank and interest into its pitiless organization. At last industry and commerce as well as all civil and social duties took the form of State functions. The ideal which some of our modern social philosophers are preaching was realized. The State was an ethical person, in the strictest sense of the word, when it was one man and when every duty and interest of life was construed towards him. All relations were regulated according to the ethics of the time, which is, of course, all that ethical regulation ever can amount to. Every duty of life took the form and name of an “obse-quium”; that is, of a function in the State organism.

Now the most important relation of the citizen to the State is that of a soldier, and the next is that of a taxpayer, and when the former loses importance the latter becomes the chief. Accordingly the obsequia of the citizens in the later centuries were regulated in such a way that the citizen might contribute most to the fiscus. He was not only made part of a machine, but it was a tax-paying machine, and all his hopes, rights, interests, and human capabilities were merged in this purpose of his existence. Slavery, as we ordinarily understand the term, died out, but it gave way to a servitude of each to all, when each was locked tight in an immense and artificial organization of society. Such must ever be the effect of merging industry in the State. Every attempt of the Roman handicraftsmen to better themselves was a breach of the peace; disobedience was rebellion; resistance was treason; running away was desertion.

Here, then, we have a long history, in which the State power first served the national interest in contest with outside powers, and then itself became a burden and drew all the life out of the subject population.

In the Middle Ages a society which had been resolved into its simple elements had to re-form. The feudal form was imposed upon it by the conditions and elements of the case. It was as impossible for a man to stand alone as it had been on the hunting or pastoral stage of life or on the lower organizations of civilization. There was once more necessity to yield personal liberty in order to get protection against plunder from others, and in order to obtain this protection it was necessary to get into a group and to conform to its organization. Here again the same difficulty soon presented itself. Protection against outside aggression was won, but the protecting power itself became a plunderer.

This oppression brought about guild and other organizations for mutual defense. Sometimes these organizations themselves won civil power; sometimes they were under some political sovereign, but possessed its sanction. The system which grew up was one of complete regulation and control. The guilds were regulated in every function and right. The masters, journeymen, and apprentices were regulated in their relations and in all their rights and duties. The work of supplying a certain community with any of the necessaries of life was regarded as a privilege and was monopolized by a certain number. The mediaæval system, however, did not allow this monopoly to be exploited at the expense of consumers, according to the good will of the holders of it. The sovereign interfered constantly, and at all points, wherever its intervention was asked for. It fixed prices, but it also fixed wages, regulated kinds and prices of raw materials, prescribed the relation of one trade to another, forbade touting, advertising, rivalry; regulated buying and selling by merchants; protected consumers by inspection; limited importations, but might force production and force sales.

Here was plainly a complete system, which had a rational motive and a logical method. The object was to keep all the organs of society in their accepted relations to each other and to preserve all in activity in the measure of the social needs. The plan failed entirely. It was an impossible undertaking, even on the narrow arena of a mediæval city. The ordinances of an authority which stood ready to interfere at any time and in any way were necessarily inconsistent and contradictory. Its effect upon those who could not get into the system — that is, upon the vagabondage of the period — has never, so far as I know, been studied carefully, although that is the place to look for its most distinct social effect. The most interesting fact about it, however, is that the privilege of one age became the bondage of the next and that the organization which had grown up for the mutual defense of the artisans lost its original purpose and became a barrier to the rise of the artisan class. The organization was a fetter on individual enterprise and success.

The fact should not be overlooked here that, if we are to have the mediaæval system of regulation revived, we want it altogether. That system was not, in intention, unjust. According to its light it aimed at the welfare of all. It was not its motive to give privileges, but a system of partial interference is sure to be a system of favoritism and injustice. It is a system of charters to some to plunder others. A mediaæval sovereign would never interfere with railroads on behalf of shippers and stop there. He would fix the interest on bonds and other fixed charges. He would, upon appeal, regulate the wages of employees. He would fix the price of coal and other supplies. He would never admit that he was the guardian of one interest more than another, and he would interfere over and over again as often as stockholders, bondholders, employees, shippers, etc., could persuade him that they had a grievance. He would do mischief over and Over again but he would not do intentional injustice.

After the mediaæval system broke up and the great modern States formed, the royal power became the representative and champion of national interests in modern Europe, and it established itself in approximately absolute power by; the fact that the interest of the nations to maintain themselves in the rivalry of States seemed the paramount interest. Within a few months we have seen modern Germany discard every other interest in order to respond to the supposed necessity of military defense. Not very long ago, in our Civil War, we refused to take account of anything else until the military task was accomplished.

In all these cases the fact appears that the interest of the individual and the social interest have been at war with each other, while, again, the interests of the individual in and through the society of which he is a member are inseparable from those of the society. Such are the two aspects of the relation of the unit and the whole which go to make the life of the race. The individual has an interest to develop all the personal elements there are in him. He wants to live himself out. He does not want to be planed down to a type or pattern. It is the interest of society that all the original powers it contains should be brought out to their full value. But the social movement is coercive and uniformitarian. Organization and discipline are essential to effective common action, and they crush out individual enterprise and personal variety. There is only one kind of cooperation which escapes this evil, and that is cooperation which is voluntary and automatic, under common impulses and natural laws. State control, however, is always necessary for national action in the family of nations and to prevent plunder by others, and men have never yet succeeded in getting it without falling under the necessity of submitting to plunder at home from those on whom they rely for defense abroad.

Now, at the height of our civilization and with the best light that we can bring to bear on our social relations, the problem is: Can we get from the State security for individuals to pursue happiness in and under it, and yet not have the State itself become a new burden and hindrance only a little better than the evil which it wards off?

It is only in the most recent times, and in such measure as the exigencies of external defense have been diminished by the partial abandonment of motives of plunder and conquest, that there has been a chance for individualism to grow. In the latest times the struggle for a relaxation of political bonds on behalf of individual liberty has taken the form of breaking the royal power and forcing the king to take his hands off. Liberty has hardly yet come to be popularly understood as anything else but republicanism or anti-royalty.

The United States, starting on a new continent, with full chance to select the old-world traditions which they would adopt, have become the representatives and champions in modern times of all the principles of individualism and personal liberty. We have had no neighbors to fear. We have had no necessity for stringent State discipline. Each one of us has been able to pursue happiness in his own way, unhindered by the demands of a State which would have worn out our energies by expenditure simply in order to maintain the State. The State has existed of itself. The one great exception, the Civil War, only illustrates the point more completely per contra. The old Jeffersonian party rose to power and held it, because it conformed to the genius of the country and bore along the true destinies of a nation situated as this one was. It is the glory of the United States, and its calling in history, that it shows what the power of personal liberty is — what self-reliance, energy, enterprise, hard sense men can develop when they have room and liberty and when they are emancipated from the burden of traditions and faiths which are nothing but the accumulated follies and blunders of a hundred generations of “statesmen.”

It is, therefore, the highest product of political institutions so far that they have come to a point where, under favorable circumstances, individualism is, under their protection, to some extent possible. If political institutions can give security for the pursuit of happiness by each individual, according to his own notion of it, in his own way, and by his own means, they have reached their perfection. This fact, however, has two aspects. If no man can be held to serve another man's happiness, it follows that no man can call on another to serve his happiness. The different views of individualism depend on which of these aspects is under observation. What seems to be desired now is a combination of liberty for all with an obligation of each to all. That is one of the forms in which we are seeking a social philosopher's stone.

The reflex influence which American institutions have had on European institutions is well known. We have had to take as well as give. When the United States put upon their necks the yoke of a navigation and colonial system which they had just revolted against, they showed how little possible it is, after all, for men to rise above the current notions of their time, even when geographical and economic circumstances favor their emancipation. We have been borrowing old-world fashions and traditions all through our history, instead of standing firmly by the political and social philosophy of which we are the standard-bearers.

So long as a nation has not lost faith in itself it is possible for it to remodel its institutions to any extent. If it gives way to sentimentalism, or sensibility, or political mysticism, or adopts an affectation of radicalism, or any other ism, or molds its institutions so as to round out to a more complete fulfillment somebody's theory of the universe, it may fall into an era of revolution and political insecurity which will break off the continuity of its national life and make orderly and secure progress impossible. Now that the royal power is limited, and that the old military and police States are in the way of transition to jural States, we are promised a new advance to democracy. What is the disposition of the new State as regards the scope of its power? It unquestionably manifests a disposition to keep and use the whole arsenal of its predecessors. The great engine of political abuse has always been political mysticism. Formerly we were told of the divine origin of the State and the divine authority of rulers. The mystical contents of “'sovereignty” have always provided an inexhaustible source of dogma and inference for any extension of State power. The new democracy having inherited the power so long used against it, now shows every disposition to use that power as ruthlessly as any other governing organ ever has used it.

We are told that the State is an ethical person. This is the latest form of political mysticism. Now, it is true that the State is an ethical person in just the same sense as a business firm, a joint stock corporation, or a debating society. It is not a physical person, but it may be a metaphysical or legal person, and as such it has an entity and is an independent subject of rights and duties. Like the other ethical persons, however, the State is just good for what it can do to serve the interests of man, and no more. Such is far from being the meaning and utility of the dogma that the State is an ethical person. The dogma is needed as a source from which can be spun out again contents of phrases and deductions previously stowed away in it. It is only the most modern form of dogmatism devised to sacrifice the man to the institution which is not good for anything except so far as it can serve the man.

One of the newest names for the coming power is the “omnicracy.” Mankind has been trying for some thousands of years to find the right ocracy. None of those which have yet been tried have proved satisfactory. We want a new name on which to pin new hopes, for mankind “never is, but always to be blessed.” Omnicracy has this much sense in it, that no one of the great dogmas of the modern political creed is true if it is affirmed of anything less than the whole population, man, woman, child, and baby. When the propositions are enunciated in this sense they are philosophically grand and true. For instance, all the propositions about the “people” are grand and true if we mean by the people every soul in the community, with all the interests and powers which give them an aggregate will and power, with capacity to suffer or to work; but then, also, the propositions remain grand abstractions beyond the realm of practical utility. On the other hand, those propositions cannot be made practically available unless they are affirmed of some limited section of the population, for instance, a majority of the males over twenty-one; but then they are no longer true in philosophy or in fact.

Consequently, when the old-fashioned theories of State interference are applied to the new democratic State, they turn out to be simply a device for setting separate interests in a struggle against each other inside the society. It is plain on the face of all the great questions which are offered to us as political questions to-day, that they are simply struggles of interests for larger shares of the product of industry. One mode of dealing with this distribution would be to leave it to free contract under the play of natural laws. If we do not do this, and if the State interferes with the distribution, how can we stop short of the mediaæval plan of reiterated and endless interference, with constant diminution of the total product to be divided?

We have seen above what the tyranny was in the decay of the Roman Empire, when each was in servitude to all; but there is one form of that tyranny which may be still worse. That tyranny will'be realized when the same system of servitudes is established in a democratic state; when a man's neighbors are his masters; when the “ethical power of public opinion” bears down upon him at all hours and as to all matters; when his place is assigned to him and he is held in it, not by an emperor or his satellites, who cannot be everywhere all the time, but by the other members of the “village community” who can.

So long as the struggle for individual liberty took the form of a demand that the king or the privileged classes should take their hands off, it was popular and was believed to carry with it the cause of justice and civilization. Now that the governmental machine is brought within everyone's reach, the seduction of power is just as masterful over a democratic faction as ever it was over king or barons. No governing organ has yet abstained from any function because it acknowledged itself ignorant or incompetent. The new powers in the State show no disposition to do it. Nevertheless, the activity of the State, under the new democratic system, shows itself every year more at the mercy of clamorous factions, and legislators find themselves constantly under greater pressure to act, not by their deliberate judgment of what is expedient, but in such a way as to quell clamor, although against their judgment of public interests. It is rapidly becoming the chief art of the legislator to devise measures which shall sound as if they satisfied clamor while they only cheat it.

There are two things which are often treated as if they were identical, which are as far apart as any two things in the field of political philosophy can be: (1) That everyone should be left to do as he likes, so far as possible, without any other social restraints than such as are unavoidable for the peace and order of society. (2) That “the people” should be allowed to carry out their will without any restraint from constitutional institutions. The former means that each should have his own way with his own interests; the latter, that any faction which for the time is uppermost should have its own way with all the rest.

One result of all the new State interference is that the State is being superseded in vast domains of its proper work. While it is reaching out on one side to fields of socialistic enterprise, interfering in the interests of parties in the industrial organism, assuming knowledge of economic laws which nobody possesses, taking ground as to dogmatic notions of justice which are absurd, and acting because it does not know what to do, it is losing its power to give peace, order, and security. The extra-legal power and authority of leaders over voluntary orgenizations of men throughout a community who are banded together in order to press their interests at the expense of other interests, and who go to the utmost verge of the criminal law, if they do not claim immunity from it, while obeying an authority which acts in secret and without responsibility, is a phenomenon which shows the inadequacy of the existing State to guarantee rights and give security. The boycott and the plan of campaign are certainly not industrial instrumentalities, and it is not yet quite certain whether they are violent and criminal instrumentalities, by which some men coerce other men in matters of material interests. If we turn our minds to the victims of these devices, we see that they do not find in the modern State that security for their interests under the competition of life which it is the first and unquestioned duty of the State to provide. The boycotted man is deprived of the peaceful enjoyment of rights which the laws and institutions of his country allow him, and he has no redress. The State has forbidden all private war on the ground that it will give a remedy for wrongs, and that private redress would disturb the peaceful prosecution of their own interests by other members of the community who are not parties to the quarrel; but we have seen an industrial war paralyze a whole section for weeks, and it was treated almost as a right of the parties that they might fight it out, no matter at what cost to bystanders. We have seen representative bodies of various voluntary associations meet and organize by the side of the regular constitutional organs of the State, in order to deliberate on proposed measures and to transmit to the authorized representatives of the people their approval or disapproval of the propositions, and it scarcely caused a comment. The plutocracy invented the lobby, but the democracy here also seems determined to better the instruction. There are various opinions as to what the revolution is which is upon us, and as to what it is which is about to perish. I do not see anything else which is in as great peril as representative institutions or the constitutional State.

I therefore maintain that it is at the present time a matter of patriotism and civic duty to resist the extension of State interference. It is one of the proudest results of political growth that we have reached the point where individualism is possible. Nothing could better show the merit and value of the institutions which we have inherited than the fact that we can afford to play with all these socialistic and semi-socialistic absurdities. They have no great importance until the question arises: Will a generation which can be led away into this sort of frivolity be able to transmit intact institutions which were made only by men of sterling thought and power, and which can be maintained only by men of the same type? I am familiar with the irritation and impatience with which remonstrances on this matter are received. Those who know just how the world ought to be reconstructed are, of course, angry when they are pushed aside as busybodies. A group of people who assail the legislature with a plan for regulating their neighbor's mode of living are enraged at the “dogma” of non-interference. The publicist who has been struck by some of the superficial roughnesses in the collision of interests which must occur in any time of great industrial activity, and who has therefore determined to waive the objections to State interference, if he can see it brought to bear on his pet reform, will object to absolute principles. For my part, I have never seen that public or private principles were good for anything except when there seemed to be a motive for breaking them. Anyone who has studied a question as to which the solution is yet wanting may despair of the power of free contract to solve it. I have examined a great many cases of proposed interference with free contract, and the only alternative to free contract which I can find is “heads I win, tails you lose” in favor of one party or the other. I am familiar with the criticisms which some writers claim to make upon individualism, but the worst individualism I can find in history is that of the Jacobins, and I believe that it is logically sound that the anti-social vices should be most developed whenever the attempt is made to put socialistic theories in practice. The only question at this point is: Which may we better trust, the play of free social forces or legislative and administrative interference? This question is as pertinent for those who expect to win by interference as for others, for whenever we try to get paternalized we only succeed in getting policed.



William Graham Sumner, “Earth Hunger or the Philosophy of Land Grabbing” (1896)

Editing History

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William Graham Sumner, Earth-Hunger and Other Essays, ed. Albert Galloway Keller (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1913).

- “Earth Hunger or the Philosophy of Land Grabbing” (1896), pp. 31-75.

Editor's Intro



The most important limiting condition on the status of human societies is the ratio of the number of their members to the amount of land at their disposal. It is this ratio of population to land which determines what are the possibilities of human development or the limits of what man can attain in civilization and comfort.

Unoccupied land has been regarded by at least one economist as a demand for men, using "demand" in the technical economic sense. I should not like to be understood as accepting that view. Wild land or nature cannot be personified as wanting labor — it is not even an intelligible figure of speech. Much less can we think of economic demand as predicable of land or nature. Economic demand is a phenomenon of a market, and it is unreal unless it is sustained by a supply offered in the market in exchange for the thing demanded. If it is really nature that we have in mind, then the globe rolled on through space for centuries on centuries without a laborer upon it. The bare expanse of its surface was the scene of growth, change, and destruction in endless series, and nature was perfectly satisfied. Nature means nothing but the drama of forces in action, and it is only a part of our vain anthropomorphism that we think of its operation as "progressive" in proportion as they tend towards a state of things which will suit us men better than some other state. It is an excessive manifestation of the same sentiment to talk of wild land as a demand for men. The desert of Sahara makes no demand for men; but nature is fully as well satisfied to make a Sahara, where such is the product of her operations, as to make the wheat fields of Iowa or Dakota. Even in Iowa and Dakota, nature offers men no wages for labor. There are the land, the sunshine, and the rain. If the men know how to use those elements to get wheat there, and if they will work hard enough for it, they can get it and enjoy it; if not, they can lie down and die there on the fertile prairie, as many a man did before the industrial organization had expanded widely enough to embrace those districts. Nature went on her way without a throb of emotion or a deviation by a hair's breadth from the sequence of her processes.

It is by no means in the sense of any such rhetorical flourish or aberration that I say that the widest and most controlling condition of our status on earth is the ratio of our numbers to the land at our disposal. This ratio is changing all the time on account of changes which come about either in the numbers of the men or in the amount of the land. The amount of the land, again, is not a simple arithmetical quantity. As we make improvements in the arts a single acre is multiplied by a new factor and is able to support more people. All the improvements in the arts, of whatever kind they are, have this effect, and it is by means of it that, other things remaining the same, they open wider chances for the successive generations of mankind to attain to comfort and well-being on earth. All our sciences tell on the same ratio in the same way. Their effect is that by widening our knowledge of the earth on which we live, they increase our power to interpose in the play of the forces of nature and to modify it to suit our purposes and preferences. All the developments of our social organization have the same effect. We are led by scientific knowledge, or driven by instinct, to combine our efforts by co-operation so that we can make them more efficient, — and "more efficient" means getting more subsistence out of an acre, so that we can support more people, or support the same number on a higher grade of comfort. This alternative must be borne in mind throughout the entire discussion of our subject. When we have won a certain power of production, we can distribute it in one of two ways: we can support a greater number or we can support the same number better; or we can divide it between the two ways, employing a part in each way.

Here comes in what we call the "standard of living." A population of high intelligence, great social ambition, and social self-respect or vanity will use increased economic power to increase the average grade of comfort, not to increase the numbers. The standard of living is a grand social phenomenon, but the phrase has been greatly abused by glib orators and philosophers. The standard of living does not mean simply that we all vote, that we are fine fellows and deserve grand houses, fine clothes, and good food, simply as a tribute to our nobility. The men who start out with the notion that the world owes them a living generally find that the world pays its debt in the penitentiary or the poorhouse. Neither is the standard of living an engine which economists and reformers can seize upon and employ for their purposes. The standard of living is a kind of industrial honor. It costs a great deal to produce it and perhaps still more to maintain it. It is the fine flower of a high and pure civilization and is itself a product or result, not an instrumentality. If by careful education and refined living a man has really acquired a high sense of honor, you can appeal to it, it is true, and by its response it furnishes security of property and of such rights as are recognized in society has the same effect. All mistakes in legislation, whether sincere and innocent or dictated by selfish ambition and sordid greed, have the same effect. They rob the people of goods that were fairly theirs upon the stage of civilization on which they stood. All abuses of political power, all perversion of institutions, all party combinations for anti-social ends have the same effect. All false philosophies and mistaken doctrines, although it may take a long time to find out which ones are false, still have the same effect. They make us cast away bread and seize a stone.

All the old institutions which have outlived their usefulness and become a cover for abuses and an excuse for error, so that the wars and revolutions which overthrow them are a comparative good, must also be regarded as clogs which fetter us in our attempts to grasp what our knowledge and labor have brought within our reach. In short, all these evils and errors bring upon us penalties which consist in this: that while with the amount of land at our disposal, its productiveness being what it is, and the power of our arts being what it is, and our numbers being what they are, we might reach a certain standard of well-being, yet we have fallen short of it by just so much as the effect of our ignorances, follies, and errors may be. We can express the effect of our mis-doing and mis-thinking by regarding it as so much subtracted from the resources and apparatus with which we are carrying on the struggle for existence. We make the mistakes, in large part, because we cannot convince ourselves what is error and what is truth. The element of loss and penalty which I have described is the true premium which is offered us for finding out where the truth lies. The greatest good we can expect from our scientific investigations and from our education is to free us from these errors and to save us from these blunders. In this view, it is certain that a correct apprehension of social facts and laws would advance the happiness of mankind far more than any discovery of truth about the order of physical nature which we could possibly make.

From one point of view, history may be regarded as showing the fluctuations in the ratio of the population to the land. The population of Greece underwent a very great reduction, during the three centuries before the Christian era, from the numbers which lived in great prosperity in the heroic period of the fifth century before Christ. The reasons for this have never been very satisfactorily ascertained, but it may have been through the laziness and general worthlessness of the population. The population of the Italian peninsula decreased at a high ratio during the period of the Roman empire, and great areas of land went out of cultivation. The Roman system, after stimulating the whole Roman world to high prosperity by giving peace and security, next used up and exhausted the whole world, including Italy. In western Europe, the cultivated area and the population increased and decreased together during the whole feudal period, according as anarchy and violence or peace and security prevailed for periods and over areas. We may regard the maintenance of a great number in high comfort on a given area as the standard towards which success in solving economic and social problems is carrying us, or from which we are falling away when we fail to solve the problems of the time correctly. Taking wide sweeps of history, it is possible to see the "tides in the affairs of men" which are marked by these ebbs and flows of the population against the areas of waste land.

It was the existence of waste land in the countries of western Europe during the Middle Ages that was all the time influencing the fate of the servile classes. The waste had high importance in the manor system; but as slow improvements were brought about in agriculture, the importance of the waste declined. The lord desired to increase his income by reducing it to tillage, and for this purpose he created tenures upon it on behalf of young men of the servile class, the terms of which were easier than those of the ancient and traditional tenures; or he allowed tenants to create petty holdings out of the waste on special terms which gave them a chance to win capital. However slight the claims were which the servile classes had upon the waste by law and custom, nevertheless the mass of wild land existing in and through the country was in fact a patrimony of theirs; its economic effect upon their status and future was a thing which no laws or customs could cut off. The wars, famines, and pestilences which decimated their ranks were a blessing to those who survived and who found themselves possessed of a monopoly of labor over against a superabundance of land. That is the economic status which gives the laborer control of the market and command of the situation.

It was this state of things which freed the servile classes of France, England, and northern Italy. An advance in the arts by several great inventions greatly assisted the movement. The rise of the dynastic states, establishing civil institutions with greater security, peace, and order, worked in the same direction. The Church had been preaching doctrines for a dozen centuries which were distinctly unfavorable to servitude, and which did avail to produce conscientious misgivings and erratic acts hostile to servitude. The influence of these teachings is not to be denied, but it was trifling compared with the great economic changes which have been mentioned, in bringing about the emancipation of the servile classes. Here we have the reason for the earth hunger of the mass of mankind. It is that the condition of things which favors the masses, always assuming that the guarantees of peace and order allow of industrial development, is one in which the area of land is large in proportion to the population. The servile classes contributed little to their own emancipation except a dull and instinctive pushing or shirking by which they were enabled to win whatever amelioration of their status the changes in motion might bring to them. Often their prejudices, ignorance, and stupidity led them to oppose their own interest and welfare. It was the educated and middle classes which, by thought and teaching, wrought out all the better knowledge and, so far as human wit had anything to do with it, — which indeed was not to any great extent — broke the way for a new order of things; and these classes, too, acted in general selfishly or short-sightedly.

In any true philosophy of the great social changes, especially the emancipation of the servile classes at the end of the Middle Ages in the leading nations of western Europe, we must look upon the new power of production of the means of subsistence from the soil, in proportion to the numbers who were to share it, as the true explanation of those changes. The living men had won new power, new command over the conditions of life. They might abuse or waste that power, but when they had it, their greater welfare could be no great mystery. The expansion of life in every social domain did upset ideas and philosophies. It produced a religious and ecclesiastical revolution and entailed upon the civilized world religious wars which produced a vast squandering of the new power — for all history teaches us that it is idle to hope that added power will be employed simply to go forward to simple and direct blessing of mankind. On the contrary, men are sure to go to fighting over it in one relation or another. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were full of wars which are interpreted in one way or another according to their immediate aspects, but which really were struggles of men, families, classes, and parties for the possession, control, and advantage of the new economic power. It is, however, a great and instructive fact to notice that, although the labor class knew least about the case, had least share in it, and were least considered by the active parties in it, they won the most by it. Everybody was working for them, not out of love for them, or out of intention, but because it was not possible to help it.

Here we must be on our guard against a fallacy which is almost universal in connection with this matter. It is constantly denied, especially by reformers and revolutionists, that the labor class has won anything by the developments of modern civilization. It appears that the basis for this assertion is the fact that there were peasant, labor, and pauper classes centuries ago and that there are such still. A moment's reflection shows that this is no proof. It would be necessary to show that these classes are now the descendants of persons who formed the same classes in former centuries. Such is not the case. The merchants and bankers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were of humble origin. As they came out of the towns of that period, there is every reason to believe that, if their ancestry were traceable, we should find that they had sprung, two or three centuries earlier, from servile or menial origin. After enriching themselves, they bought land and "founded families." They formed alliances, as soon as possible, with offshoots of the feudal nobility. The modern nobility of England and France has never been feudal. It is really a class of enriched citizens who have retired and become landholders, so that their power is in wealth. They have, therefore, with few exceptions, come up from the lower, and in the great majority of cases from the lowest, classes, as would be seen if the ancestral stream were followed far enough back. Having once passed the barrier, they are counted and count themselves amongst the nobles; and since the noble class, as a class, has continued, the movement of emancipation, enfranchisement, and enrichment, which has been acting on the labor class through its most efficient families, is lost sight of. There has been a counter-movement which is also almost universally unknown or ignored — that of impoverished families and persons of the nobility down into the ranks of trade and labor.

In the enumeration of the great forces of class change which operated in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, I have reserved one for more special attention. The adventurous voyagers who began to explore the outlying parts of the earth in the fifteenth century thought little and cared less about the peasants and artisans at home; but it was they more than any others who were fighting for the fortunes of those classes in the future. The very greatest, but, so far as I have seen, least noticed significance of the discovery of America was the winning of a new continent for the labor class. This effect was not distinctly visible until the nineteenth century, because this new patrimony of the labor class was not available until the arts of transportation were improved up to the requisite point at which the movement of men and products could be easily accomplished. Then, as we have seen in our time, the movement of men one way and food the other developed to great proportions. Is it not true, then, that this is the great significance of the discovery of America, and that we have as yet barely come to the point where we can see its significance? It is only later that the colonization of Australia has become important, and it is only at this moment that the colonization of Africa is beginning to intensify the same effect. What is that effect? It is that when the pressure of population on land in western Europe was becoming great, the later improvements in the arts — above all the use of steam and the opening of the outlying continents — have, in two ways at the same time, relieved that pressure. This combination has produced an industrial revolution, which is bringing in its train revolutions in philosophy, ethics, religion, politics, and all other relations of human society; for whenever you touch economic and industrial causes, you touch those which underlie all the others and whose consequences will inevitably ramify through all the others. The philosophers and all the resolution-makers of every grade come running together and shouting paeans of victory to the rising power and the coming glory; and, therefore, they claim that they have made it all. It is totally false. They are themselves but the product of the forces, and all their philosophies and resolutions are as idle as the waving of banners on the breezes. Democracy itself, the pet superstition of the age, is only a phase of the all-compelling movement. If you have abundance of land and few men to share it, the men will all be equal. Each landholder will be his own tenant and his own laborer. Social classes disappear. Wages are high. The mass of men, apart from laziness, folly, and vice, are well off. No philosophy of politics or ethics makes them prosperous. Their prosperity makes their political philosophy and all their other creeds. It also makes all their vices, and imposes on them a set of fallacies produced out of itself. It is only necessary to look about us in the world of to-day to see how true this all is.

We may be very sure that the wheat from America has had far more effect on ideas in Europe than the ideas from America, and that the Old World aristocracies need care little for American notions if only American competition would not lower the rent of land. For the outlying continents affect not only those who go to them but also the whole labor class who stay at home. Even while they stay there the pressure of the whole reachable land-supply weighs upon the labor market and the land market at home; and it makes wages high, food cheap, and the rent of land low, all at once. That is what exalts the laborer and abases the landed aristocrat, working both ways in behalf of democracy and equality. To it we can trace the wild passion for equality and all the leveling philosophy of the age. This is what makes that passion and that philosophy so irresistible, whether for the weal or the woe of the human race. For each man to have a wide area at his disposal, whether actually or only by economic effect spreading through the industrial organization, means that he has the conditions of existence within his control, that he is not ground down by poverty, that he is forced to seek no man's protection, that he is cowed by no fear, that he is independent and "free," that he can provide for his family without care and can accumulate capital too. If you ask him the reasons for all this, he will probably begin to talk about institutions and doctrines; but if you will study the case, you will find that the same forces made him and the institutions too; and his faith in the institutions is like that of a savage who thinks that he would not have had success in hunting but for the fetish around his neck.

We may now see the real philosophy of colonization. It is not simply because an old habitat becomes too crowded, although it is true that there is a kind of inertia, consisting of habit, love of home, fear of the unknown, differences of language, and so on, which keeps population settled until stress is felt. There is a great economic advantage in spreading such population as there is over all the land there is, although they cover it but thinly. This economic advantage is accompanied by a great social disadvantage. In a scattered population the social organization is low and the social activities are weak. Such institutions as churches, schools, libraries, and museums, which flourish only in great centers of population, are feeble or non-existent. The spread of population over a great area of land, however, puts the first absolute necessities of existence within easy reach of those who have nothing but muscular strength at their disposal. The internal movement of population in the United States has illustrated all this most obviously. The social inertia which has been mentioned is less effective in our old states to keep people from going to the new states than it is in Europe to prevent emigration to the new countries. Hence we find that Iowa has been largely settled by emigrants from Illinois, and Montana is now being settled by emigrants from Iowa. This is the phenomenon of earth hunger, the apparently insatiable desire to get more land; and the reason for it lies in the facts which have been mentioned. With more land, there are higher wages, because no one will work for wages which are convertible into less goods than the laborer could get out of the land when used in the most lavish and wasteful manner. With more land, the manual unskilled laborer is raised in comparison with the skilled and educated laborer, that is, the masses are raised in comparison with the classes. When there is plenty of land, the penalties of all social follies, vices, and ignorance are light. Each man has plenty of the "rights of man" because he need only be, in order to be a valuable member of society; he does not need high training and education, as he would in an old and crowded society with a strict organization, high discipline, intense competition, and weighty sanctions upon success or failure.

These facts of the social order are of the most fundamental and far-reaching importance. They are the facts which control the fate of the human race and produce the great phenomena which mark ages of history. They are the facts which, since the great geographical explorations of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, have spread the population of the European nations over the globe. The most enterprising nations seized the advantage first and have pushed it farthest. The movements of population have been accelerated by all the inventions which have facilitated transportation and communication.

The only peoples who are affected by this redistribution of population are those who are enlightened enough to feel the forces which are bringing it about. In spreading over the globe, they have come in contact with the old populations which already occupied the outlying regions and who were on lower stages of civilization. The earth hunger of the civilized men has produced a collision of the civilized and the uncivilized, in which the latter have often perished. Up to the present time, only one of the outlying nations — Japan — has appeared able, as a nation, to fall into its place in the new order of things and to march on with it. The inevitable doom of those who cannot or will not come into the new world system is that they must perish. Philanthropy may delay their fate, and it certainly can prevent any wanton and cruel hastening of it; but it cannot avert it because it is brought on by forces which carry us all along like dust upon a whirlwind.

Here we have reached a point at which an important distinction must be made. So far I have spoken of those phenomena of earth hunger which are economic and social. Men want more land without assignable limit, because in that way they get a good living more easily and improve their class position. Let us call this economic earth hunger to distinguish it from political earth hunger, which will now demand our attention; for no sooner have men begun to spread over the earth and colonize it than the question of political jurisdiction over the new countries must arise. Is this jurisdiction a care and a burden; or is it an enjoyable good and a means of glory? This question has not yet been answered. I hope to throw some light on it. Hitherto great colonies and dependencies and vast possessions in outlying territories have been regarded as producing national greatness and ministering to national glory; and to this day the civilized nations are acting as if it were the simplest common sense to seize more territory if at any time it was possible. By political earth hunger, therefore, I mean the appetite of states for territorial extension as a gratification of national vanity.

The distinction between economic earth hunger and political earth hunger is to be very carefully noted. If there is good wheat land in Manitoba, the people of Minnesota and Iowa will want to go there and get the use of it. It is not because they have not enough where they are — there is no such conception as enough when more can be had. It is because they find an economic advantage in spreading over more. If they did not, they would not go. This is economic earth hunger. There is, however, in Manitoba, a civilized government with law, rights, and police; such being the case, there is no need that those who emigrate thither should assume the civil jurisdiction. In the case of Texas, on the other hand, in the early days of its settlement there was such need; the political extension was needed to support the economic extension, because Mexico was not furnishing the guarantees of peace and order. Everything in connection with that matter was construed by its bearings on slavery; and that meant, on the distribution of political power in our own body politic. The people of New England then denounced the economic earth hunger as well as the political earth hunger. In a calmer view of the retrospect, both appear justifiable in that case. The later aggression on Mexico and the appropriation of her territory was another matter. Still again, when, in our recent war flurry, it was proposed to conquer Canada, it was a case of genuine political earth hunger, which had no justification in anything, but was a project of pure outrage, cruelty, and aggression.

There are two very different modes of exploiting the outlying regions of the globe, which need to be distinguished one from the other. Civilized men may go out to spend a few years winning such wealth as they can, with the intention of returning and enjoying it at home; or they may go to establish new homes, expecting that their descendants will reside in the new countries. The latter class alone are colonists, in the proper sense of the term. The English have far surpassed all other nations in the extent to which they have been true colonists, and that is the reason why they have held a more secure foothold in a greater number of places than any other European nation. We must count our own country into their achievements in this respect. The same energy and enterprise which made them open this country to settlement has made them open others, the jurisdiction of which they still retain. "Land grabbing" is only a more colloquial expression for earth hunger; but it must be admitted that to grab land for the purpose of settling and colonizing is to perform a far greater service to our race than to grab it for the sake of exploiting its riches and then leaving it in order to spend the product in European luxury.

Rodbertus, the German socialist, interpreted the last three hundred years of exploration and colonization as an exploitation and consumption of the outlying parts of the globe by the old centers of civilization. In this observation he gave proof of a more philosophical view of the phenomena than anyone else had taken. Let us see how far it was true. We have already had occasion to notice that the Roman empire was a grand system of exhaustion and consumption of all the rest of the world by the Roman city. It was the study of this fact which led Rodbertus to the observation which has been quoted; he regarded the modern movements of world-commerce and colonization as having the same character. If the people of the civilized nations of Europe go out to the ends of the earth only to exploit them in the way which I have described, and if, in that process, they exterminate the aborigines, then the view which Rodbertus suggests has a great deal of truth in it. If the European nations carve up the globe into sections which they appropriate and govern with a view to their own interests only, maintaining the political jurisdiction for that purpose only, and fighting with each other for the plunder, then his view is the right one; and the whole extension of commerce and colonization for three hundred years past has been a system of extortion, oppression, and greed. If, on the other hand, the system of commerce and colonization has consisted in planting and building up commonwealths in America, Australia, and South Africa, to become independent centers of civilization, self-governing communities, developing their own powers for their own interests and entering into the world's commerce, by which all the people of the globe share all the resources of the globe, then the observation of Rodbertus is a calumny and not the truth.

As a fact of history, we know that the former of these systems of relation between Europe and the outlying continents did prevail until the present century. It is not extinct yet. Spain to a considerable degree and France to a less degree~stlll cling to the notion of dependent colonies as things worth having for what the mother country, in antagonism to their own interest and certainly in antagonism to that of any other European nation, can get out of them. Germany has only entered upon colonial enterprise within this generation, and she seems to be disposed to develop her colonial policy quite upon the old lines. The policy of England in this entire matter is so much more enlightened than that of any other nation that it stands upon a separate plane and conforms to the second of the two systems which I have described above as completely as if Canada, Australia, and South Africa were actually independent commonwealths like the United States. In regard to all these outlying states, the European hegemony of the globe is entirely broken, and they constitute, with the leading European states, a great family of equal commonwealths which, taken in its entirety, constitutes civilized society. In this aspect earth hunger appears less sordid than in the days of the colonial system. It is only a name for the process by which the human race occupies its patrimony, and by which civilization overcomes barbarism throughout the earth. He who supposes, however, that this process can go on smoothly and peacefully must be little versed in history or in human nature.

Two systems of relation between the old centers of population and the outlying continents have been distinguished: one of which was created by the European states as soon as the outlying continents were opened; the other of which was introduced by the revolt of these North American colonies in 1775 and has been further built up by the English colonies and the United States since. The former system was the "colonial system." According to that, Europe was the head of the globe, in relation to which all the outlying parts were placed as subordinate members. The statesmen and diplomats of Europe around their council tables quarreled and strove with each other and allotted amongst themselves the divisions which they made. The colonists participated in these strifes. Our colonists, as we well know, had a "policy" as long as the French owned Canada, the Spaniards Florida, and the Dutch New York. War was always welcome in Europe because it gave a chance to seize another country's outlying possessions; war was always welcome here because it gave the colonists a chance to try to drive the French off the continent. Our historians accept this policy as sound and approve of it; but what did the colonists gain by driving the French out of Canada, or what harm would it have done, politically speaking, if they had stayed there until this day? Economically Canada would not probably have been as rapidly or wisely developed as it has been. In the Revolutionary War, that habit of looking at things which had become traditional in the colonies made it seem a matter of the first necessity to conquer Canada or to force her to join the revolt, although she chose not to do so. The only effects of the fact that she has been outside which are discernible, are that we have been free from some race and religious discords which would have tormented us if she had been in, and that we have not been allowed to have free trade with her as we should have had if she had been in. Our congressional and newspaper statesmen agree that this latter has been a great gain to us, or that free trade with Canada would have been a great harm; but within a few months they have manifested an eager disposition to conquer Canada, as if free trade with her would be a great blessing, provided that we could get at it through a war of conquest and could impose it by compulsion, and provided also that we could, by absorbing her, get the race war and the religious war added to our political burdens at the same time. These are the paradoxes and follies of earth hunger on its political side. On the south we quarreled with Spain as long as she held Florida and Louisiana; then we quarreled with Mexico until we had taken Texas and California. We have inherited our full share of the appetite which I have called political earth hunger. Internal troubles and the time required to digest the last meal have allayed it for a period, but it will awaken again.

Earth hunger is the wildest craving of modern nations. They will shed their life blood to appease it. It gratifies national vanity and economic expansion both at once. No reasoning can arrest it and no arguments satisfy it. At the present moment the states of Europe are carving up Africa as they carved up America in the eighteenth century. They set about the process ten years ago with most commendable deliberation, and with an attempt to establish rules of order for the process; but they are already snarling and growling at each other over the process, like hungry tigers over their prey. Germany and Italy, the two latest colonizers and the two whose domestic burdens and conditions fit them least for colonial enterprise, are the most eager and rapacious of all.[1] The notion is that colonies are glory. The truth is that colonies are burdens — unless they are plundered, and then they are enemies. Russia is spreading her control over central Asia, although the internal cohesion of her empire is so weak that it will probably break in pieces under any great strain. France, after enormous losses in Tonkin, has just conquered Madagascar and joined England in carving up Siam.

The confusion between the economic use and the political jurisdiction is one of the strongest and most mischievous with which we have to deal. The best thing which could happen, from our point of view, is that England should "grab" all the land on the globe which is not owned by some first-class power. She would govern it all well, on the most enlightened and liberal principles, and we could all go to it for pleasure or gain as our interests might dictate. She would then have all the trouble, care, and responsibility, and we should all share the advantages. If there is a gold mine in Guiana and if England gets the political jurisdiction of it, the English nation or exchequer will not get a grain of gold from the mine; if Englishmen get some of it, they can only do so by going to the mine and digging as individuals. Individuals of any other nationality can go there and do the same; if any Americans want to go there, they will undoubtedly have better chances if the civil jurisdiction of the district is English than if it is Venezuelan.

So we see that, although the grossest errors and abuses of the old colonial system have been abandoned, the point of view and the philosophy of that system are by no means abandoned. Earth hunger in its political aspect is as strong as ever. The political philosophy of the colonial system— against which the Americans revolted in 1775 — is as fully accepted in our Congress now as it was in the English Parliament in 1775. The doctrines of that system were all repeated in the debate on the proposition to annex Hawaii two years ago, and the debates of this winter have been full of them. The one argument which threatened for a time to carry the annexation of Hawaii was that if we did not take it, England would. That was an eighteenth century argument, and its strength showed how little advance we have made in having our own doctrines. The English statesmen declared that they would not take it if they could possibly help it and that they wished that we would take it and govern it. That was a nineteenth century argument.

Now let us not exaggerate, especially by ignoring what is sound and true in the old doctrines. Our own contests with Spain in Florida and Louisiana were unavoidable; she was not competent to govern her dependencies in a way to make them safe neighbors; she did not fulfil her duties in international law and comity. In Louisiana she held the mouth of the Mississippi River and tried to use her position to make the river and the Gulf of Mexico Spanish waters. Such pretensions were inadmissible. They rested on obsolete doctrines. She did not accept or fulfil the duties which would have devolved upon her in consistency with her own doctrines. Her claims were based on abstract rights which she alleged and which, if they had been admitted, would have been purely dogmatic. They did not rest on facts, or relations, or an adjustment of mutual interests; and they were not maintained with due responsibility such as must always go with a claim of right. The case was one, therefore, in which a civilized state of inferior rank could not maintain its hold on territory against a civilized state of higher rank. It was only another phase of the case presented by uncivilized tribes which try to hold territory against civilized colonists. There is, therefore, some truth to be admitted in the doctrine of "manifest destiny," although the doctrine is, like most doctrines in politics, a glib and convenient means of giving an appearance of rationality to an exercise of superior force. The truth in the doctrine is that an incompetent holder will not be able, as a matter of fact and in the long run, to maintain possession of territory when another nation which will develop it according to its capacity is ready to take it. A contemporary instance is furnished by the Transvaal, where the Boers certainly cannot maintain their independence and authority unless they prove themselves competent to maintain such civil institutions as are adequate to further the development of the territory.

Furthermore, civilized nations may find themselves face to face with the necessity of assuming the jurisdiction over territory occupied by uncivilized people, in order to police it and give local peace, order, and security, so that industry and commerce may be prosecuted there. The European nations now have this necessity in Africa. The fact remains, however, that the use of the land for production and the political jurisdiction of the territory are two entirely different things. What men want is to get at the land so as to till it and otherwise use it for industrial purposes; the political jurisdiction is a burden which is just so much of a drawback from the gain of using the land. If the industrial use could be got without taking the political jurisdiction, it would be far better. In other words, if the natives of any territory could maintain the customs and institutions which are necessary in order that peaceful industry and commerce may go on, that is a state of things which is far more desirable than that there should be any supersession of the native authority by any civilized state. The latter step is an irksome and harmful necessity for the state which makes it.

As illustrations of the principles here suggested, we may notice the following cases. There can be no need for any civilized state to assume the government of Japan, while it is very possible that there may soon be need for superseding the native government of China. There is need for superseding the native government of Turkey, and nothing prevents it but the jealousy of the Christian governments towards each other. There was need a few years ago for superseding the native government of Egypt; the country was in anarchy and its position on the road to India made that unendurable. It has been, is, and will be necessary for states to extend their political jurisdiction over outlying territory, whether they do it willingly or unwillingly. Nothing that has been said about the political aspect of earth hunger should be understood as denying or ignoring that; but this necessity is presented as an unwelcome burden and not in the least as a glorious achievement of prosperity and profit.

The most striking instance of all is that of Cuba as our statesmen are now forcing it upon us. It is possible that the island may fall into anarchy and that it might become necessary for us to take it under our control; but measures are now proposed which would set in train a movement for us to take it as an appropriation of a property supposed to be valuable; that is, as a satisfaction of greed, not as submission to an unwelcome duty. If we should so take it, we should find ourselves face to face with an alternative: either to hold it as a dependency or to take it into our Union and let it help to govern us. One branch of the dilemma is as appalling as the other. The fathers of this republic created a peculiar form of confederated state formed of democratic republics. They meant to secure us a chance to live in peace, happiness, and prosperity, free from the social burdens which had cursed the civilized nations of the Old World. We were to be free from war, feudalism, state church, balance of power, heavy taxation, and what Benjamin Franklin called the "pest of glory." We were to have none of the traditions which made a nation's "greatness" depend on the pomp and ceremony of courts and the luxury of great officers. We were to have no grand diplomacy and no "high politics," as the French and Germans call it. High politics are those great questions of national policy which are reserved for royal persons and great dignitaries of church and state to decide. They might also be called so because they "come high" to the common people. But if we are to have what the fathers of the republic planned for us, we must submit to the limitations which are inevitable in the plan; and one of them is that we can never have an imperial policy and can hold no subject dependencies. There is no place for them in the system, and the attempt to hold and administer them would produce corruption which would react on our system and destroy it. On the other hand, the old Federalists were right when they insisted that we could not carry on our confederacy unless the members of it were approximately on a level of political and industrial development. We are suffering at present from a proof of it in the position and power of the Rocky Mountain states, which are certainly as foreign to democracy as anything can possibly be. To admit Senators from Cuba, whether they were natives or carpet-bag Americans, would be to prove that we had lost that political sense which has always characterized our people and which is our chief political reliance.

These instances go to show that the question of territorial extension is a question of expediency, and that it depends upon the occasion and upon the circumstances of the nation itself whether it is wise to extend territorial jurisdiction and responsibilities or not. In any case, those states only are prepared for colonization and foreign responsibilities whose internal cohesion is intense; for every extension of territory brings with it a strain upon the internal organism. If we had never taken Texas and northern Mexico, we never should have had any secession.

Let us now turn our attention back to the historical development for a few moments, in order to notice the effects of the independence from Europe which was won first by these North American colonies and afterwards by those of Spain.

In the disruption of the colonial system the position of the former Spanish colonies of South and Central America has been peculiar; they passed out of the domination of Spain, yet they have never won good standing as independent states in the family of nations. In the early twenties of this century, their status became an object of interest to Great Britain and the United States, and the relation of the United States to them became a subject of political contention here. The Panama Congress was an attempt to organize the states of the western continent under the hegemony of the United States for the purpose of declaring the independence of the western continent of European control. It was really a revolt against the old colonial system such as has been above described, and it might properly be regarded as the sequel to the revolt of the thirteen North American colonies and a completion of the revolution which that revolt began in the relations between Europe and the outlying continents. The Panama Congress was, therefore, an act of political policy and, in that light, far more important than two vague dogmatic utterances in Monroe's message which attempted to formulate the view of those relations which the independent states of the New World had adopted in place of the old notion of Europe as the head and governor of the civilized nations of the whole globe.

If the Panama Congress had been carried out to a conclusive result, its effects might have been important. It became a matter of contest between parties here in one of the bitterest party fights in our political history — that between the Adams administration and the Jackson opposition. The confused and imperfect results left material for endless wrangling about interpretations of the Monroe doctrine. These interpretations are a mine of rhetorical wealth to the political dogmatizer. He can get out of it any great principle that he wants; and when a political dogmatizer gets a great principle, he is equipped for any logical necessity which he may encounter. He builds deduction on deduction, and if he finds that his foundation is after all too narrow for the needs of his argument, he can always go back to it and develop the fundamental principle, as he calls it, or tack on a logical deduction which he says was implicit in it. The history of theological doctrine and of all social and political principle-spinning shows what a facile and futile process this is. History contains instances enough to show us the frightful burden which a doctrine may be. It comes with the prestige of tradition, antiquity, and perhaps a great name, to take away from the living generation the right to do their own thinking and to compel them to sacrifice their lives and happiness against their will and without the consent of their own reason and conscience.

In his message of December 17, 1895, President Cleveland referred to the balance-of-power doctrine as a parallel of the Monroe doctrine. The example was unfortunate if the parallel had been true. What oceans of blood and mountains of treasure have been spent for the balance-ofpower doctrine! And what result is there to show for it all? We have had in our history many doctrines: America for the English; no taxation without representation; state rights; separation of purse and sword; manifest destiny; the self-expanding power of the Constitution; God's purpose to civilize the earth by African slavery; and I know not how many others. Some of them are obsolete or forgotten. Others it has cost us frightful sacrifices to set aside. Inasmuch as a United States Senator has referred to the doctrine of Washington's "Farewell Address," that we should avoid entangling alliances with foreign nations, as the "Washington fetish," I may perhaps be allowed to call the Monroe doctrine the "Monroe fetish." We should do best to declare our emancipation from all doctrines, to do our own thinking on all our own questions, and to act according to our own reason and conscience, not according to anybody's traditional formula. There is all the more reason for this because you will observe that the men who are trying to force us to do what they advocate, by shouting "Monroe" at us, all drop the Monroe doctrine as soon as their use of it is proved false in history and by the record — but they do not drop the plans they propose on that account. If, then, they do not abide by Monroe, but only use his name as a club with which to stun us, let us repudiate Monroe at the outset, so that we may stand on an even footing. If I were an educated young man now growing up, I would not allow anybody to entail any formula on me that would fetter my judgment of questions and cases which may arise.

There is, however, a parallel to the Monroe doctrine which is far closer both in history and philosophy than the balance-of-power doctrine, and that is the colonial policy as it has been described in this paper. It has been shown how, historically and in obedience to the strongest forces which work upon the social and industrial organization, the opening-up of the outlying continents produced great movements of commerce and great redistributions of population. The colonial policy of the governments was an application of statecraft and diplomacy to the situation. The earth was drenched in blood through the eighteenth century in obedience to that policy. It has also been shown how the Monroe doctrine and the Panama Congress were parts of a grand movement which marked the definite end of the colonial policy as to America. So far, good; but now out of the end of that period springs up a source of new woe. The Monroe doctrine as often interpreted really amounts to a new doctrine that the globe is to be divided into two independent halves, the eastern and the western. This doctrine is to take the place of the doctrine that the globe is a unit ruled from and by Europe.

Is the new doctrine any better than the old one? Is it any more tenable? Is it not certain to take the place of the old one as the fetish for which our children must spend their blood and their property as our fathers did for the old colonial system? Is it anything but an affectation, a pose which cannot be maintained except for a time and for a purpose, to say that we will control this continent and refrain from meddling in the other? Does the United States intend to abstain from forming relations of all kinds with the nations of the eastern continents as her interests and affairs may dictate? Have we not within a year been forced to protect our citizens in China and Armenia, and were we able to hold aloof from the war between China and Japan? Does the United States intend to deny that the states of South America are independent states open to access by any other nations and liable to have any kind of friendly or unfriendly relations with European states such as any two independent states may have with each other? Does the United States hold aloof from the present development of Africa, assuming that Americans will never engage in commerce there or never have interests there; or does the United States assume that, when civilized powers are in control, it will be possible for everyone to carry on trade and industry there with peace and security? It is evident that if the answers to these questions are given which a great many people in this country have recently seemed disposed to give, the new doctrine of dual division of the globe is to take the place of the colonial doctrine of European headship of the world, as the cause of strife, bloodshed, and waste to the whole human race.

We are already living under a regime created by manipulation of import duties, by which prices for all the great manufactured products are raised here from twenty-five to fifty per cent above the prices in other civilized countries. The ground alleged for this policy is that wages are high here. Undoubtedly they are higher here than in western Europe, at least for unskilled laborers; this situation is accounted for by the facts about the land-supply which I discussed in the beginning of this essay. It is now proposed to restrict immigration into this country, and the favorite reason alleged is to close our labor market and make wages high. Then there is another proposition earnestly advocated; that is, to cut this continent off from the rest of the world and to give it a monetary system of its own. I say nothing now of the absurdity and impossibility of these propositions, in which respect no one of them is worse than either of the others, when examined by a student of political economy — they have a certain coherence and consistency in their error, although they are mutually destructive of each other. What I now desire to do is, by putting these things together and connecting them with the doctrine of political isolation of the western continent, to show the fallacy and absurdity, as well as the extravagance, of this whole set of notions. Try to imagine this western continent politically separated from intercourse with the rest of mankind; with commerce interdicted by taxes in order to produce industrial independence; with immigration forbidden in order to make and maintain a rate of wages here having no relation to the rate of wages elsewhere; and with an independent monetary system planned to make prices here independent of those in the rest of the world. You will see how preposterous such a program is, and what a satire it is on our boasted intelligence that we are forced to give it serious attention.

There is another view of the political organization of the globe which we had supposed to be already well on towards realization. It has been mentioned above. It is the view of the states of the globe as forming a great family of nations, united by a growing body of international law, creating institutions as they are needed to regulate international relations, bound together in community of interest by free commerce, communicating to one another the triumphs won by each in science and art, sharing their thoughts by a common literature in which the barriers of language are made as little effectual as possible, and thus creating one society of the enlightened nations independent of state boundaries. Such an idea need only be expressed to show that it is the only conception of the relation of nations to each other which fits the enlightenment of our day. It is not in the least an ideal or a dream. It is only a construction of facts such as our international law already recognizes and rests upon. It does not preclude war between these nations, for nothing can preclude war; but it reduces the chances of it by extending the sway of reason and introducing into international relations ideas and institutions with which all enlightened nations are already familiar. Such a conception of international relations does not quench earth hunger. Nothing can quench that; for, as we have seen, it is the impulse which drives the human race to enter upon and enjoy its patrimony, the earth; but such a conception of the civilized races of the world in their relation to each other would bring into a clear light the difference between the extension of industry and commerce on the one side and political aggrandizement on the other. This distinction is no new thing; it is recognized and acted upon by all the most enlightened economists, publicists, and statesmen in the world. Neither is there anything new in the view of history and of the conflicts of policy which have here been presented; but if that view is true, then the Monroe doctrine, or the doctrine of the dual political organization of the nations of the earth, is a barbaric stumbling-block in the way of enlightened international policy.

The United States enjoys a privileged position such as no other community of men ever has occupied in the world's history. European statesmen live under a constant strain, day and night, to avoid war, while our statesmen can afford to trifle with the notion of war and to talk recklessly without danger of consequences. We have no strong neighbors. We are under no obligation to maintain great armaments. We have no heavy debt. If we are heavily taxed, it is our own choice. No enemy will attack us. We can live in prosperity and enjoy our security if we choose. Our earth hunger is satisfied for the present, and we can enjoy its satisfaction. It is also provided for far into the future. Here, then, the propertyless classes can live in comfort and acquire property. Our government is also the only one which has ever been founded with provision, in its political theories and institutions, against political earth hunger. We may turn around in our folly, if we choose, and ask: "What is all this worth?" We may throw it away and run in chase of all the old baubles of glory, and vanity, and passion. If we do, we shall only add another to the long list of cases in which mankind has sacrificed the greatest blessings in pursuit of the greatest follies.


[1] In the few days since this paper was written, Italy has suffered a defeat in her colonial extension, which not only proves that she is forcing it as pure aggression against a local power competent to maintain a state, but also puts her face to face with a fatal alternative: she must either abandon her colonial enterprise, or she must prosecute it by new sacrifices which will bring her to bankruptcy, and perhaps to anarchy.



William Graham Sumner, “Separation of State and Market” (no date)

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William Graham Sumner, Earth-Hunger and Other Essays, ed. Albert Galloway Keller (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1913)

- “Separation of State and Market” (no date), pp. 306-11.

Editor's Intro




I cannot find an example of a state which has not been, in a great measure, subject to the power of capital. It is impossible to live and to carry on any enterprises of utility or pleasure, without capital; those who denounce capital most earnestly bear plainest testimony to this; they are squirming about in an effort to escape from, or to turn their backs on, this fact. Hence men have always struggled to get possession of this power. Those who had state power found capital indispensable; they made alliances with those who had it. The latter made terms under which they accomplished their own ends, and satisfied their own tastes. If any examples can be found to the contrary, they are great and powerful despotisms, which were strong enough to disregard all but a military caste, or a priesthood, but even in these cases the power of capital made itself felt indirectly through its influence on the oligarchy which maintained the throne.

I cannot find a case of any state in which the ruling element really practised abnegation of power, or showed a disposition to deprive itself of functions. If democracy contains any great hope for mankind, it lies in the belief that democracy is to distinguish itself from all other forms of the state in this respect. Jeffersonian democracy, by its most important dogmas and maxims, seemed to justify this hope, and if it has won any triumphs, it has won them by this policy. It was not afraid to be called non-government or "atomistic." The old Congressional Globe bore the motto: "The world is governed too much." Jeffersonian democracy, however, in its best estate, was able only partly to fulfil its own ideal, for it found that a state power which undertook to live by the principles of self-abnegation could not simply rest at ease or be quietly neutral. It had to defend itself against the forces which tried to direct it, and to push back against the organizations which were trying to drive it on to the undertakings which it disavowed. In the latest developments of democracy, the world over, there is very little of this reluctance to assume functions.

By imperium the Romans meant the concept of military and civil power combined in a supreme authority. Every government aims to develop and maintain this conception in its chief organ as a realized fact, and democracy is no exception. The "people" — that is the ruling majority for the time being — instead of divesting itself of any part of the traditional functions of the civil authority, is notably tenacious of everything which it imagines to be "sovereignty"; and it resents any curtailment, as if such curtailment would contain an imputation upon the equality of democracy with the other -ocracies which have had the powers. So we are gravely told that "the state is the depository of the coercive power of society"; as if that was an intelligible proposition, or one embodying a distinct notion applicable to any question of theory or any problem of practise. It is upon such turgid and empty dicta that all absolutism has been built up in the past; and such are now being fabricated with a zeal hitherto unequaled for the purposes of democratic absolutism. Indeed, we seem destined speedily to discover that democracy, instead of being a single and homogeneous system, is a thing of such various phases and forms that it is scarcely possible to compare two cases of it, or that such a definition can be made that two commentators can understand each other.

Democracy is atomistic. It breaks the society up into individuals who are political units. The peril of such a system is that it is at the mercy of any organization formed inside of it which gives coherence and order to its disintegrated elements. Such an organization will begin to move the whole. To understand the significance of this, let us here bring another set of observations into the scope of our study.

Status holds down individual energy and power. If a black man is told that the only status allowed by social institutions to him is that of a slave, no black man can work out into realization the powers which he may possess. If the status of women is fixed by custom and law, no woman can show her power to do anything outside of the limits. The social arrangement which sets free individual energy is liberty; for under this each one may prove what he is by what he does, and the society profits by the expansion and evolution of all the power there is in it. Now democracy and liberty are not the same thing by any means; but, in the latest history, they have been closely allied with each other, and democracy as a political form has helped and been helped by liberty in the social order. The product of liberty and democracy is individualism. Under it men have been emancipated from tradition, authority, caste, superstition, and to a certain extent from prejudices and delusions; if we could maintain liberty and democracy long enough, we might perhaps produce individualistic results so great that men would be emancipated from delusions and from phrases.

This movement, however, like every other, has its perils and abuses. If individualism destroys institutions, and if democracy, with its dream of equality, simply works disintegration, the society is at the sport of the new elements which combine and organize on new centers, for actual disintegration and atomization of society is impossible.

What then are the centers on which the new organizations form, and what is the character of the new organizations? In our modern society they are sure to be interests, meaning by that, groups of persons united by a desire for the success of the same enterprises and seeking pecuniary gain from that success. Here is where the plutocratic element finds entrance into the democratic system, and here lies the weakness of democracy, in the face of the plutocratic forces with which it has to cope in modern society.

What, in the face of such an antagonism, is the significance of this new notion that "the state is an ethical person" — a triviality in the guise of an apothegm? If the state is an ethical person, and is rent by interests which may be sordid, and are at best commercial, what becomes of its ethical authority, and how can its ethical character abide? In order to save its own existence — not its ethical character, but its purely brute existence— it has to take sides with some interests against others, which is just what all modern civilized states are doing.

And yet, as I said at the outset of this essay, it has seemed not impossible that democracy might contain within itself the form and potency of better things. It has seemed that it might be simple-minded enough to throw off all the big dogmas of state-olatry, might be so open and visible, and might feel itself so well known of all men, that it should laugh down all inflated theories of itself; might be so hard-headed as to treat all political mysticism with contempt; might be so practical that it would know better than to try to do too much, or to busy itself with schemes of universal happiness.

The first condition of its fulfilling any such hope is that it shall renounce. It is the strongest system that has ever existed when it is achieving peace, order, and security; it is the weakest system that ever existed when it attempts to turn its force to industrial or social objects, and it forfeits strength in the former field by all its attempts in the latter. The state is the greatest monopoly of all; it can brook no rival or colleague in its domain; it is necessarily sole and supreme. If the state is purely a civil organization this monopoly character of it is beneficial; if, however, the state enters as an agent into the industrial or social relations of its own subjects, it becomes the greatest and worst of all monopolies, the one best worth having under one's control, the best prize of base struggles, and the most powerful engine by which some men may exploit others.

The most notable product of democracy, especially of American democracy, up to this time, is the maxim of the separation of church and state. There have been strong efforts at times in this country to formulate a maxim of the separation of the state and the market. It is to that policy that democracy ought to come, if it can command the wisdom and the will to attain to it; it would thereby cut the ground from under plutocracy. Plutocracy, as we have seen, consists in the political power of capital. If capital were excluded from all interest in state action, and thrown upon the laws of the market, there would remain only that power of capital which is rooted in the industrial and social order, which nothing can set aside or overcome. If there were no longer any legislative monopolies nor any legislative guarantee of natural monopolies, the only monopolies which would remain would be such as no one can abolish.



William Graham Sumner, “Democracy and Plutocracy” (no date)

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William Graham Sumner, Earth-Hunger and Other Essays, ed. Albert Galloway Keller (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1913).

- “Democracy and Plutocracy” (no date) which also includes “Definitions of Democracy and Plutocracy” and “The Conflict of Plutocracy and Democracy”, pp. 283-300.

Editor's Intro




One of the most difficult things to learn in social science is that every action inside of the social organism is attended by a reaction, and that this reaction may be spread far through the organism, affecting organs and modifying functions which are, at the first view of the matter, apparently so remote that they could not be affected at all. It is a more simple statement of the same fact to say that everything in the social organism displaces everything else. Therefore, if we set to work to interfere in the operation of the organism, with our attention all absorbed in one set of phenomena, and regulate our policy with a view to those phenomena only, we are very sure to do mischief. The current speculations about social policy and social reform suffer very largely from this error.

The organization of a modern civilized society is intensely high; its parts are extremely complicated. Their relations with each other are close, and all the tendencies of our time are making them closer; and the closer they are, the more surely and immediately are interferences distributed through them. The bonds of connection between them are constantly becoming more delicate and subtle; and they are sublimated, as it were, so that they escape the observation of the senses. In a simple society, even though it be on the height of the best civilization, all the parts of the organization lie bare to view, and every one can see the relations of agriculturist, transporter, banker, merchant, professional man, debtor, creditor, employer, and employee, in their visible operation. In a highly organized society as, for instance, in a big city, those same relations have all become automatic and impersonal. They have escaped from control; they are regulated by assumptions and understandings that every one is to do so and so; that certain uniform and constant motives, aims, and desires will present themselves as long as human society endures; and that men will, therefore, continue to exert themselves in a certain manner for the satisfaction of their wants. This is what we mean by natural law, and by the field of a science of society. If any one will look over his dinner table the next time he sits down to dinner, he can see the proofs that thousands of producers, transporters, merchants, bankers, policemen, and mechanics, through the whole organization of society and all over the globe, have been at work for the last year or more to put that dinner within his reach, on the assumption that he, too, would do his work in the organization, whatever it is, and be prepared to pay for the dinner when it reaches him. All these thousands and millions of people, therefore, have co-operated with each other for the common good of all, without acquaintance or conventional agreement, and without any personal interest in each other, under the play of forces which lie in human nature and in the conditions of human existence on this earth.

Now, the organs of society do not impinge upon each other with hard and grating friction, like blocks of granite wedged together. If they did the case would be easier, for then we should have only a mechanical contact, and the relations would be of a simple order. Neither are the relations those of an orchestra, which produces harmony by voluntary co-operation under training, according to a predetermined scheme, yet subject to the laws of harmony in sound. Nor are the relations like those of an army, where the co-operation is arbitrary, and enforced by discipline, although controlled by expediency for the attainment of an end under set conditions. The organs are elastic and they are plastic. They suffer both temporary and permanent modifications in form and function by their interaction on each other, and by the arbitrary interferences to which they are subjected by legislation or artifice of any kind. Thus, for instance, it is impossible to say how taxes will diffuse themselves; they may force a change in the immediate organ on which they fall — transporters, merchants, bankers — or they may be transmitted more or less through the organization.

It is this elasticity and plasticity of the organs of society which give the social tinker his chance, and make him think that there are no laws of the social order, no science of society; no limits, in fact, to the possibilities of manipulation by "The State."

He is always operating on the limit of give and take between the organs; he regards all the displacement which he can accomplish as positively new creation; he does not notice at all, and probably is not trained to perceive, the reaction — the other side of the change; he does not understand that he must endure a change on one side for all the change which he affects on the other. Since it is so hard to learn that exchange means exchange, and therefore has two sides to it, a giving and a taking — since, I say it is so hard to learn this, and people talk even about buying and selling as if they were independent operations, a fallacy which is itself the outcome of a high organization with a money system — then it is not strange that it should be so hard to learn that all social change is change, has two sides to it — the cost and the gain, the price and the product, the sacrifice and the obtainment.

Hence we see one fallacy of nearly all the popular propositions of "reform": they would not be amiss, perhaps, if the change which they propose could be made and everything else remain the same.

In the proposition it is assumed that everything else is to remain the same. But it is inevitable that other things will not remain the same; they will all of them adjust themselves to the new elements which are introduced. If we make a change involving expense, taxes must be increased, and every taxed interest must undergo a change to fit it to the new conditions. I know of no reform by state agency which does not involve increased taxation.

Let us note another fact. In the advancing organization of society, the tendency is all the time to subdivide the functions, and each one is assumed by a different set of persons; thus the interests of living men and women become enlisted in all the play of the organs, and are at stake in all the legislative and other interferences. What I have called the elasticity and plasticity of the organs means in fact the rights, interest, happiness, and prosperity of the one set of human beings versus the same interests of another set of human beings. It is men who strive, and suffer, and plan, and fight, and steal, and kill, when the great impersonal and automatic forces push them up against each other, or push group against group. The tendency is all the time to go back from the industrial struggle to the military struggle. Every strike illustrates it. Better educated people, while talking about respect for law, seize upon legislation as the modern mode of pursuing the military struggle under the forms of peace and order — that is to say, they turn from industrial competition and industrial effort to legislative compulsion, and to arbitrary advantages won and secured through the direction and the power of the state. When the strikers and Knights of Labor declare that they are going to reach after this power, they have simply determined to contend for the latest form of force by which to supersede the industrial struggle for existence by a struggle of craft and physical force. Yet there are those who tell us that this is really a supersession of the struggle for existence by intelligence and "ethical" forces, as if every page of the Congressional Record did not reveal the sordidness of the plans and motives by which it is all controlled.

Here comes in another fallacy in the philosophy of state interference. Let the reader note for himself with what naivete the advocate of interference takes it for granted that he and his associates will have the administration of their legislative device in their own hands and will be sure of guiding it for their purposes only. They never appear to remember that the device, when once set up, will itself become the prize of a struggle; that it will serve one set of purposes as well as another, so that after all the only serious question is: who will get it? Here is another ground for a general and sweeping policy of non-interference. Although you may be in possession of the power of the state to-day, and it might suit you very well, either to triumph over your business rivals and competitors; or to bend to your will the social organ which stands next to you, and with which you have the most friction (as, for instance, shippers with transporters); or to see your pet reform (temperance, for instance) marching on, you would far better consent to forego your satisfaction, lest presently your rivals, or the railroads, or the liquor-sellers, should beat you in a political struggle; and then you must suffer wrong and in the end be forced to give up industrial and persuasive methods altogether and devote your whole energy to the political struggle, as that on which all the rest depends.

Of all that I have here said, the Interstate Commerce Law is the instance which stands out in point with the greatest distinctness. The shippers and transporters, the competing railroads, the people who can extort passes and those who do not want to give them, the people at way-stations and those at competing points, and other interests also which cluster about the transportation, which is the most important element in the opening up of this great and rich continent, all clash and struggle for shares in the wealth which the people of the United States produce. The contest has phases and vicissitudes of every description. The politicians, editors, economists, litterateurs, lawyers, labor agitators, and countless others who, in one way or another, have something to make out of it, join in the struggle, taking sides with the principal parties, or hovering around the strife for what may turn up in it. When once the fatal step is taken of invoking legislation, the contest is changed in its character and in its arena. That is all that is accomplished; from that time on the questions are: who will get this legislative power? Which interest or coalition of interests (such as passed the bill) will get this, the decisive position in the battle, under its control? Already, in some of the Western States, the next phase has developed itself. The majority interest, by numbers, seizes the power of the state and proceeds to realize its own interest against all others in the most ruthless fashion. That capital has means of defense is unquestionable; that it will defend itself is certain; that it cannot defend itself without resorting to all the vices of plutocracy seems inevitable. Thus the issue of democracy and plutocracy, numbers against capital, is made up. It is the issue which menaces modern society, and which is destined to dispel the dreams which have been cherished, that we were on the eve of a millennium. On the contrary, it will probably appear that the advance of civilization constantly brings new necessity for a still more elevated activity of reason and conscience, and does not tend at all to a condition of stability, in which the social and political problems of the race would reach a definitive solution.


All the words in -ocracy properly describe political forms according to the chief spring of political power in them: an autocracy is a political form in which the predominant force is the will of the monarch himself; an aristocracy is a form in which the predominant and controlling force is the will of a limited body, having the possession of the qualities which are most esteemed and envied in that society; a theocracy is a form in which the predominant force is some conception of God and his will, and, inasmuch as the will of God can come to men only through some finite channel, a theocracy easily passes into a hierocracy, in which the predominant force is possessed and wielded by a priesthood; a bureaucracy is a form in which the ultimate control of things political lies in the hands of a body of office-holders. In each case the name designates that organ which, upon ultimate analysis, is found to have the power to say what shall be and what shall not be.

A democracy, then, is a political form in which the ultimate power lies with the demos, the people. This mass, however, while unorganized, could not express its will or administer the affairs of the state; there has never been any state organized on such a plan. The demos, for political purposes, has always excluded women, minors, resident aliens, slaves, paupers, felons, etc., according to the constitution in each case; the "people," therefore, has always meant some defined section of the population, not the whole of it. Furthermore, in any modern state, even a superficial study of the current phrases and accepted formulae will show that the word "people" is used in a technical sense to mean, not even the whole body of legal voters, but a limited number of them. A writer who rages at the idea that there are any "classes" will, in the next paragraph, reiterate all the current formulae about the "people," and reveal by the context that he means to distinguish the people as peasants, artisans, and uneducated persons, from the rich, the educated, and the banking, mercantile, and professional classes.

Yet the current dogmas about the rights and wisdom of the people have no truth whatever, and no moral beauty, except when they are affirmed of the whole population, without any exception whatever. The dogmas in question are not really maxims or principles of actual political life and administration; they are sublime conceptions of the undeveloped power of growth and civilization in human society. As inspiring ideals, as educational motives, as moral incentives, they have incalculable value; but then they are philosophical and academical generalities, not every-day rules of action for specific exigencies. When they are once dragged down into the mud of practical politics, and are cut to the measure of party tactics, they are most pernicious falsehoods.

For instance, the notion that a human society, acting as a whole, bringing its reason and conscience to bear on its problems, traditions, and institutions, constantly reviewing its inherited faiths, examining its experiments, profiting by its own blunders, reaching out after better judgment and correcting its prejudices, can, in the sweep of time, arrive at the best conclusions as to what is socially true and wise and just, that man can get on earth, is a grand conception, and it is true. If the doctrine that the people ought to rule, and that the people know what is wise and right means this, it is true and fruitful. It will be noticed, however, that this doctrine implies that the people are to embrace every element in the society, including all the women and children, for in no sense could this grand consensus be true unless it was universal. It is of its very essence that the whole voice should be in it; it is its catholicity which constitutes its guarantee. If the feminine element is left out of it, its guarantee is gone; it is one-sided and imperfect; it is no longer human and social; it has sunk from the grade of a grand and inspiring conception to that of the party cry of a dominant interest. Neither is it true if the children are left out of it, for it is only in the sweep of time, after long and patient revision, that the judgments have authority. It must therefore be the work of generations to make those judgments; it is only the undying society, in its continuity and undistinguished generations, which can make them, and if they are to be true, the fire and hope of youth are as essential components as the inertness and conservatism of age.

Now, however, turn this same dogma into a maxim that peasants and artisans are the "people," that they are the depositaries of social and political wisdom, as distinguished from the sages and philosophers. Tell the young man not to worry about learning, to sneer at culture, to spend his nights on the street and his Sundays reading dime novels and the Police Gazette, and, when election day comes, to throw his vote so as to make a political job for himself or his friend; tell him that this is what is meant by the doctrine that the people ought to rule, and that in doing all this he will be uttering the oracles of political wisdom — then the great doctrine has turned into one of the most grotesque and mischievous falsehoods ever imagined.

In practise, therefore, democracy means that all those who are once admitted to political power are equal and that the power lies with the numerical majority of these equal units. If then the political divisions form themselves class-wise, then the most numerous class becomes the demos and is the depositary of political power. For this reason if we establish a democracy and then set the classes and the masses against each other, it is the utmost treason against democracy, because it ingrafts upon it from the start the worst vices of social discord and social greed which have disgraced the older political forms.

A plutocracy is a political form in which the real controlling force is wealth. This is the thing which seems to me to be really new and really threatening; there have been states in which there have been large plutocratic elements, but none in which wealth seemed to have such absorbing and controlling power as it threatens us. The most recent history of the civilized states of Western Europe has shown constant and rapid advance of plutocracy. The popular doctrines of the last hundred years have spread the notion that everybody ought to enjoy comfort and luxury — that luxury is a sort of right. Therefore if anybody has luxury while others have it not, this is held to prove that men have not equally shared in the fruits of civilization, and that the state in which such a condition of things exists has failed to perform its function; the next thing to do is to get hold of the state and make it perform its function of guaranteeing comfort and physical well-being to all. In the mean time, with the increasing thirst for luxury and the habit of thinking of it as within the scope of every man's rights, the temptations of dishonest gain increase, and especially are all those forms of gain which come, not from defalcation and theft, but from the ingenious use of political opportunities, put under a special code by themselves. A man who is "on the make," to use a slang phrase produced from the very phenomena to which I refer, does not think of himself as dishonest, but only as a man of the world. He is only utilizing the chances which he can get or make to win gain from the conjuncture of political and social circumstances, without intentional crime such as the statute has forbidden. This runs all the way from the man who sells his vote to the statesman who abuses official power, and it produces a class of men who have their price.

The principle of plutocracy is that money buys whatever the owner of money wants, and the class just described are made to be its instruments. At the same time the entire industrial development of the modern world has been such as to connect industry with political power in the matter of joint-stock companies, corporations, franchises, concessions, public contracts, and so on, in new ways and in great magnitude. It is also to be noted that the impersonal and automatic methods of modern industry, and the fact that the actual superintendent is often a representative and quasi-trustee for others, has created the corporate conscience. An ambitious Roman used to buy and bribe his way through all the inferior magistracies up to the consulship, counting upon getting a province at last out of which he could extort enough to recoup himself, pay all his debts, and have a fortune besides. Modern plutocrats buy their way through elections and legislatures, in the confidence of being able to get powers which will recoup them for all the outlay and yield an ample surplus besides.

What I have said here about the venality of the humbler sets of people, and about the greed and arrogance of plutocrats, must not be taken to apply any further than it does apply, and the facts are to be taken only as one's knowledge will warrant. I am discussing forces and tendencies, and the magnitude attained as yet by those forces and tendencies ought not to be exaggerated. I regard plutocracy, however, as the most sordid and debasing form of politicial energy known to us. In its motive, its processes, its code, and its sanctions it is infinitely corrupting to all the institutions which ought to preserve and protect society. The time to recognize it for what it is, in its spirit and tendency, is when it is in its germ, not when it is full green.

Here, then, in order to analyze plutocracy further, we must make some important distinctions. Plutocracy ought to be carefully distinguished from "the power of capital." The effect of the uncritical denunciations of capital, and monopoly, and trust, of which we hear so much, is, as I shall try to show further on, to help forward plutocracy.


Not every rich man is a plutocrat. In the classical nations it was held that the pursuits of commerce and industry were degrading to the free man; and as for commerce, it was believed that every merchant was necessarily a cheat, that he must practise tricks from the necessity of the case, and that a certain ever-active craftiness and petty deceit were the traits of character in which his occupation educated him. As for the handicrafts, it was argued that they distorted a man's body and absorbed his mind and time, so that he was broken in spirit, ignorant, and sordid. The same ideas as to commerce and, in part, as to handicrafts, prevailed through the Middle Ages.

The classical civilization was built upon human slave power. For that reason it exhausted itself — consumed itself. It reached a climax of organization and development, and then began to waste capital and use up its materials and processes. It is, however, clear that any high civilization must be produced and sustained by an adequate force. In the case just mentioned it was human nerve and muscle. Now, modern civilization is based on capital, that is, on tools and machines, which subjugate natural forces and make them do the drudgery. It is this fact which has emancipated slaves and serfs, set the mass of mankind free from the drudgery which distorts the body and wears out the mind, at the same time producing a high civilization and avoiding the wear and tear on men.

The "dignity of labor" and the "power of capital" are therefore both products of the same modern movement. They go together; it is the power of capital which has made labor cease to be servile; it is the power of capital which has set women free from the drudgery of the grain-mill and the spinning-room; it is the power of capital which has enabled modern men to carry on mining and quarrying without misery, although in the classical times those forms of labor were so crushing that only the worst criminals or the lowest order of slaves were condemned to them. Every high civilization is unnatural, inasmuch as it is the product of art and effort. It is, therefore, unstable — ready to fall again to the original level, if the force and intelligence by which it is produced and maintained should fail. Our civilization is supported by capital and by modern science; if either of these fail — if we exhaust our capital, or if our science is not adequate to the tasks which fall upon it, our civilization will decline.

The dignity of capital is correlative with the dignity of labor. The capitalist has not simply fallen under the ban from which the laborer has escaped; the modern times have produced classes of men, masters of industry and accumulators of capital, who are among the most distinct and peculiar products of modern times. At what other epoch in history has any such class of men existed? There have, in earlier times, been great merchants, who have shown that the notion of a merchant as a man who cheats in weights and bets on differences, is a contemptible and ignorant calumny; the great masters of industry, however, are something entirely modern, and the vituperation of such a class as parasites, plunderers, speculators, and monopolists, is as ignorant and inexcusable as the older misconceptions of laborers which have gone out of fashion. A great capitalist is no more necessarily a plutocrat than a great general is a tyrant.

A plutocrat is a man who, having the possession of capital, and having the power of it at his disposal, uses it, not industrially, but politically; instead of employing laborers, he enlists lobbyists. Instead of applying capital to land, he operates upon the market by legislation, by artificial monopoly, by legislative privileges; he creates jobs, and erects combinations, which are half political and half industrial; he practises upon the industrial vices, makes an engine of venality, expends his ingenuity, not on processes of production, but on "knowledge of men," and on the tactics of the lobby. The modern industrial system gives him a magnificent field, one far more profitable, very often, than that of legitimate industry.

I submit, then, that it is of the utmost importance that we should recognize the truth about capital and capitalists, so as to reject the flood of nonsense and abuse which is afloat about both; that we should distinguish between the false and the true, the good and the bad, and should especially form a clear idea of the social political enemy as distinguished from everybody else. The recent history of every civilized state in the world shows the advance of plutocracy, and its injurious effects upon political institutions. The abuse and the vice, as usual, lie close beside the necessary and legitimate institution. Combinations of capital are indispensable, because we have purposes to accomplish which can be attained in no other way; monopolies exist in nature, and, however much modified by art, never cease to have their effect. Speculation is a legitimate function in the organization, and not an abuse or a public wrong. Trusts, although the name is a mistake, are evidently increasing in number all over the world, and are in great measure a result of the modern means of communication, which have made it possible for persons having a common interest, although scattered over the earth, if their number is not too great, to form combinations for the exploitation of a natural monopoly. What is gained by uncritical denunciation of these phenomena, or by indiscriminate confusion of definitions? The only effect of such procedure will be to nourish the abuses and destroy the utilities.

The first impulse is, when a social or industrial phenomenon presents itself, which is not considered good or pleasant, to say that we must pass a law against it. If plutocracy is an abuse of legislation and of political institutions, how can legislation do away with it? The trouble is that the political institutions are not strong enough to resist plutocracy; how then can they conquer plutocracy? Democracy especially dreads plutocracy, and with good reason.

There is no form of political power which is so ill-fitted to cope with plutocracy as democracy. Democracy has a whole set of institutions which are extra-legal, but are the most powerful elements in it; they are the party organization, the primary, the convention, etc. All this apparatus is well adapted to the purposes of plutocracy: it has to do with the formative stage of political activity; it is very largely operated in secret; it has a large but undefined field of legitimate, or quasi-legitimate, expenditure, for which there is no audit. As the operations of this apparatus are extra-legal they are irresponsible, yet they reach out to, and control, the public and civil functions. Even on the field of constitutional institutions, plutocracy always comes into the contest with a small body, a strong organization, a powerful motive, a definite purpose, and a strict discipline, while on the other side is a large and unorganized body, without discipline, with its ideas undefined, its interests illy understood, with an indefinite good intention.

If legislation is applied to the control of interests, especially when the latter are favored by the facts of the situation, the only effect is to impose on the interests more crafty and secret modes of action. Mr. Adams says that, since the Interstate Commerce Law was passed, the methods of railroad men have become more base and more secret than ever before. The legislator, in further efforts to succeed in his undertaking, can only sacrifice more of the open and honest rights which are within his reach, just as the Russian Government, in trying to reach the discontented elements in its society, and crush them by severity, only puts honest people to unlimited inconvenience and loss, but does not catch the Nihilists. Under a democracy, when the last comes to the last, the contest between numbers and wealth is nothing but a contest between two sets of lawyers, one drawing Acts in behalf of the state, and the other devising means of defeating those Acts in behalf of their clients. The latter set is far better paid in consideration, in security, and in money.

I therefore maintain that this is a lamentable contest, in which all that we hold dear, speaking of public interests, is at stake, and that the wise policy in regard to it is to minimize to the utmost the relations of the state to industry. As long as there are such relations, every industrial interest is forced more or less to employ plutocratic methods. The corruption is greater, perhaps, on those who exercise them than on the objects of them. Laissez-faire, instead of being what it appears to be in most of the current discussions, cuts to the very bottom of the morals, the politics, and the political economy of the most important public questions of our time.


Renunciation is not agreeable to any body or person, but I have expressed the opinion that democracy ought to renounce; that its prosperity and success depend upon renunciation. This needs some explanation and illustration.

In another form the same idea has often been enunciated. If we want a free government we must be content to forego a great many fine things which other civil forms might get for us. A "free government," under the democratic republican form, first of all renounces all the ceremonial and pageantry of the aristocratic or monarchical form; that is of little importance, although perhaps we assume too easily that the poetic and imaginative element is absent from a democratic community. But a democratic republic will never be neat, trim, and regular in its methods, or in the external appearance which it presents; it will certainly lack severity and promptitude of operation. A great many things are sure to be left at loose ends; in a word, there is sure to be little discipline. There is a lounging air, a lack of formality, an exaggerated horror of red tape, a neglect of regularity.

Beyond this, however, and more important, is the fact that there are important functions which older forms of the state have been accustomed to perform, which the democratic republic cannot well perform: it cannot make war without great waste and expense, both of life and money; it cannot do any work which requires high and strict organization, and do it well — if it tries to do work of that kind, it does it only at great expense, and under great waste. Germany is the best drilled and disciplined state of modern times, while the United States is the leading example of a democratic republic. The judgments of these two countries about each other, and their influence on each other, are among the most remarkable facts in modern life. The judgments of Germans generally on the United States are those of men accustomed to an administrative system which works accurately and promptly, also pedantically and cheaply, on a system which is inaccurate and unprompt, and is not cheap; they are accustomed to respect state action, to believe in it, and to rely upon it; with a population trained to respond at the tap of the drum, uneducated to individual initiative, and with a bureaucracy of long tradition and intense training, the state may present itself as an entity of a different sort, and an agent of different power from the American State. The question then is, whether we can draw any inferences as to state functions from Germany, or whether we should be willing to see the American State undergo those changes which it would have to undergo in order to fit it to undertake all the functions which are undertaken by the German State.

This question needs only to be stated to answer itself. The especial changes which the American State would have to undergo would be to weaken democracy and to strengthen bureaucracy. These are the two changes which would be the most impossible of all which could be attempted. It is much more probable that democracy will sweep away all the bulrushes in the shape of "monarchical institutions" which are being built up against it, and, seizing upon the military organization and the state socialistic institutions as at once its prey and its instrumentalities, will triumph over everything else, in Germany as well as elsewhere.

If we turn back, then, to the free democratic state as the state of the present and future, the one which is alone possible for us and which must go on to meet and work out its destiny, then I think it will appear that its civil service is its weakest point. The recent history of the French Republic, joined with our own, has gone far to show that a republican system with party government is drawn toward the abuse of the civil service by forces which it is folly to underestimate. One must shut one's eyes to facts if one would deny that the sentiments "I am a Democrat," " this is a Republican Administration," strike a responsive chord in the hearts of the masses, where denunciations of the corruption of the civil service, or of wasteful expenditures of public money, fall on dull ears. These watchwords, however, are only the doctrines: "To the victor belong the spoils," and "Woe to the vanquished," in a little less cynical and shocking form, and they mean that, in the modern democratic state, parties fight each other for control of the state, which they rule, having won it, like a conquered territory. If this state, then, has state-socialistic functions, it is sure to produce the worst exploitation of man by man which has ever existed; to live under it, and not be in it, would be to suffer a tyranny such as no one has experienced yet.

I should not like to be understood to speak lightly of preaching as a means of awakening the reason and conscience of men to convictions which are universally right and true. Anything which can be gained in this direction is sure to produce manifold fruit in politics and economic policy; but hitherto we have not done much against the abuse of the civil service except by preaching. The statesman has to accomplish his purposes by adopting measures, and by founding institutions which can set social forces in operation, or prevent their operation. He must have an adequate means or must make the best of a case as he finds it.

In the present case, therefore, I maintain that the way to minimize the dangers to democracy, and from it, is to reduce to the utmost its functions, the number of its officials, the range of its taxing power, the variety of its modes of impinging on the individual, the amount and range of its expenditures, and, in short, its total weight; for among the other vices and errors of the prevailing tendency, this is one of the worst, that we do not see that whatever extends the functions of the state increases its weight. Against this view nothing has ever yet been brought forward but the pure assumption which has all experience against it, that, if the state should not do things they would not be done at all.

And there is another course of thought which seems to me to run in the same direction.

We often boast that this is an age of deliberation, and it is, of course, true that, as compared with any earlier period, men of the most civilized states do act by deliberation where formerly they acted by instinct. It is, however, still true of even the most enlightened community which could be found, that the mass of the people in it live by instinct. The torments of always giving one's self a reason, satisfactory to reason and conscience, for everything one does, are a privilege of high culture. The ancient philosophers never got further than the question: what is the highest good in life? The modern thinking world reached so high as to spend a year, perhaps, in debating whether life is worth living. That was certainly a proud triumph; the mass of mankind, however, are contented and eager to live without deliberating about it.

Now democracy calls for a great amount of deliberation and reflection from the mass of mankind; and especially, if we are determined not to follow the policy of letting things work themselves out, but are determined to exert ourselves upon them, according to ideals which we have formed, then the democratic state is destined to make bigger and bigger demands upon the reflective power of its citizens. If it does so, it will fail to get the response which it expects. Once more the path of wisdom seems to lie in making the demands of the state as few and simple as possible, and in widening the scope of the automatic organs of society which are non-political, in order to see whether they will not prove capable, if trusted.

When we are told that the state would do all things better, if we would give it more things to do, the answer is that there is nothing which the state has not tried to do, and that it has only exceptionally performed anything well, even war or royal marriages, and that, on the contrary, here in the United States, where the other policy has had more trial than anywhere else — favored, it is true, by circumstances — it has proved beneficent in the extreme. Therefore, if, after all, it is only a question of whether to put faith in the state or to put faith in liberty, an educated American ought not to hesitate long which to do.