William Graham Sumner’s Modern Day Hit-and-Miss

William Graham Sumner was an early proponent of the ideas that later formed the backbone of Libertarian thought. His support and emphasis on social and economic Darwinism was a product of the times, but still rings true to millions of Americans today. Crucially, while many of his socio-economic ideals have been adopted to mainstream thought over time, his vital warning in What Social Classes Owe to Each Other has been neglected. Namely, the tendency of government–and our American government in particular–to lean towards plutocracy has gone widely ignored since Sumner’s time.

Sumner’s major similarity to much of mainstream thought today is an unshakable faith in free market capitalism. He not only believes that the market is profitable and good and proper, but he also insists that every person (with some hard work) can enjoy the spoils of the system. Sumner writes that “No instance has yet been seen of a society composed of a class of great capitalists and class of laborers who had fallen into a caste of permanent drudges.” when making the case that upward mobility is possible for members of any economic class within the capitalist frame (Sumner, 8).

Sumner can well be forgiven for this claim, given that he wrote the text in 1883 during the height of the U.S. Industrial Revolution. But today’s Libertarians (and other conservatives) cannot plead ignorance in the face of our middle class’s current economic situation. The middle class today is saving less, earning less in wages and overall income, and is increasingly stuck doing part-time work alone. These numbers aren’t just compared to pre-meltdown levels, many of these measures compare to figures from 20 years ago or more. Labor force participation is the lowest it’s been since the mid-seventies, which is padding the unemployment figures that the current administration has been putting out. And let’s not mention the United States’ staggering rates of child poverty, among the very worst in the developed world.

Social mobility–the hallmark of the hard-workin’, bootstrap-pullin’ American Dream–is significantly more calcified than Americans believe or want to believe. Is it any surprise then that Sumner did not once mention, say, the freedmen of the Civil War in his text? No mention of the former slaves who had literally zero economic or educational foundation to work with as a class, whatsoever. Even he likely realized that the racial, societal, and class barriers they faced could together make widespread success difficult if not impossible to achieve. History has shown those barriers as supremely potent in stalling generalized success.

Far worse still than absorbing his antiquated, Darwinian economics lesson is the fact that modern-day Libertarians have failed to take Sumner’s applicable lessons about plutocracy and jobbery to heart. Sumner recognizes the unique influence of money in our socio-political system, namely the popular recognition of “a man’s right to have almost anything which he can pay for” that stands apart from that of other nations (Sumner, 9). Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate for president, vocally supports the Citizens United v. FEC decision, stating “I think it [the Citizens United case] comes under the First Amendment, that they should be able to contribute as much money as they want.” His rationale for supporting the decision is the exact same that Justice Scalia used during the 5-4 ruling itself:

“The more speech, the better!” 

This logic brings to mind the timeless Anatole France quote: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.” In that same majesty, it permits us each to create political action committees, to lobby Congress, and to buy ads on major television networks slamming our political opponents.

Of course, when push comes to shove, how likely and to what extent can we everyday Americans exercise those rights?

Ultimately, this question shifts to which is more important: securing the right itself, or ensuring the means to exercise that right? What are rights without the plausible ability of the (vast, if not universal) majority of the population to utilize them? Those are not rights. Those are privileges. Sure, you can start a SuperPAC. You have that right, thanks to the Supreme Court. Good luck competing with the multi-billion dollar international corporations that have them too.

In Sumner’s estimation, I believe he would advocate against the side of Johnson and Scalia, in opposition to the full expansion of these rights. He recognizes–with great foresight, but also with his contemporary experience–that jobbery is “the greatest social evil with which we have to contend” (Sumner, 13). He knew the government’s code for “developing our resources” truly meant enriching the few at the expense of the great many (Sumner, 13). This verdict may run counter to his pro-rights consciousness, but the alternative absolutely violates his “to each their own” principles.

Sadly, it appears that the most selfish impulses of Sumner’s thought still have a significant grip on our society while his warnings about the corruptible nature of the U.S. government have gone unheeded. He laid bare the nature of our system and we as Americans failed to act in any way to curb it. Eisenhower did the same with regards to the “unwarranted influence” of the military-industrial complex, a term he coined in his farewell address, and we again failed to act in response. Now, we have a military budget that exceeds that of the next 11 nations combined, a multi-billion dollar lobbying industry, and a country where more than 7 out of 10 Americans are unsatisfied with the direction we’re going as a nation. Could it possibly be because we’re too caught up in debates over rights and moralistic infighting over what is right, as opposed to focusing on what is actually happening to our government and political system? All other debates are meaningless if our government is not run as a legitimate and clean democratic republic. This is a point which I believe Sumner, and I, and adherents of every ideology in America could come to a clear consensus on.

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