Given the political discourse surrounding class today, it is easy to see the remarkable and enduring influence of ideas like William Graham Sumner’s What Social Classes Owe Each Other. His arguments seem to remain in vogue among those on the right, especially among the more “libertarian” of the GOP. Sumner’s answer to the question that his title poses is simple: nothing. The social classes owe each other essentially nothing, except for respecting property rights and supporting themselves.
William Graham Sumner
“Every man and woman in society has one big duty. That is, to take care of his or her own self. This is a social duty. For, fortunately, the matter stands so that the duty of making the best of one’s self individually is not a separate thing from the duty of filling one’s place in society, but the two are one, and the latter is accomplished when the former is done.
“. . . it is the duty of All-of-us (that is, the State) to establish justice for all, from the lest to the greatest, and in all matters. . . . We each owe it to the other to guarantee rights. Rights do not pertain to results, but only to chances. They pertain to the conditions of the struggle for existence, not to any of the results of it; to the pursuit of happiness, not to the possession of happiness.”
Sumner’s argument should sound familiar. It is rooted in Lockean thought, and Sumner’s unstated assumptions are similar to Locke’s. Men have a right to “struggle for existence” against Nature, and the bounty of Nature is boundless. With enough hard work and perseverance, any scrappy underdog can overcome the obstacles prevented by concentrations of wealth and power and become himself a mighty capitalist, all the while improving society.
Romney: 53% of us owe 47% of us nothing
“If there were such a thing as natural rights, the question would arise, Against whom are they good? Who has the corresponding obligation to satisfy these rights? There can be no rights against Nature, except to get out of her what ever we can, which is only the fact of the struggle for existence stated over again.”
“The aggregation of large fortunes is not at all a thing to be regretted. On the contrary, it is a necessary condition of many forms of social advance. . . . Undoubtedly the man who possesses capital has a great advantage over the man who has no capital, in all the struggle for existence. . . . This does not mean that one man has an advantage against the other, but that, when they are rivals in the effort to get the means of subsistence from Nature, the one who has capital has immeasurable advantages over the other.”
But are these assumptions fair to make? Is nature a boundless pool of wealth that will continue to supply future generations with a fair playing field for the “struggle for existence?” And do concentrations of wealth and power only help society instead of giving one man advantage
“against” the other? I think not.
Nature isn’t boundless. This is was already a problem with Locke’s theory, but Locke at least had the advantage of seemingly endless tracts of land in the Americas to make the argument that there will always be room for new generations to carve out a decent living. By the time Sumner is making his argument Nature’s bounty was all but privatized and the mass of humanity was reduced to perpetual wage-labor.
Likewise, aggregations of capital do indeed give men advantage against each other. Powerful monopolies ruled by the industrial barons whom Sumner was aggrandizing has stifled the chances for smaller firms to succeed in the marketplace, often by use of the government as a protector. The irony is that Sumner all but acknowledges this in his argument.
What Sumner thinks social classes REALLY owe each other
“There is an insolence of wealth, as there is an insolence of rank. A plutocracy might be even far worse than an aristocracy. . . . The feudal code has, through centuries, bred a high type of men, and constituted a caste. The mercantile code has not yet done so. . . . The consequence is, that the wealth-power has been developed, while the moral and social sanctions by which that power ought to be controlled have not yet been developed.”
There you have it. Forget equal opportunity, Sumner’s rich friends are a new aristocracy who have just but to develop a code of chivalry to keep their conduct restrained and tasteful in order for society to be all good. Even assuming Sumner’s assumptions about wealth and power are legitimate, his argument loses all internal consistency. He begins by making classical-liberal argument for the rule-of-law, the supremacy of contract, and against the arbitrary power of nobles and democratic mobs. He ends by envisioning the robber barons as a new house of lords.
And regardless, if Sumner’s assertions that the social classes owe each other nothing, that advantages of class are not problematic and that the pursuit of self-interest is virtuous are all true, then his argument would essentially justify just what he’s arguing against. The lower classes don’t owe the upper classes deference or their property rights respect. They are well justified in capitalizing on the advantage of numbers which their class status gives them to seize control of the state make it the servant of their self-interest.
So Sumner’s real argument would be not that the social classes owe each other nothing, but that the lower classes owe the upper classes obedience and respect.