Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Stray Thoughts on William Graham Sumner's What Social Classes Owe Each Other

A week or two ago, preparing for class, I reread William Graham Sumner's What Social Classes Owe Each Other (1883). After doing so, I jotted down some of the stray thoughts that occurred to me while rereading it -- nothing fully thought through, just my first impressions -- a set of reader reactions of the sort that I asked my students to do and hand in. But I thought it might make for a nice blog post. Then I forgot to post it.

Coming across the saved post, I had the sad thought that its time had passed, and that it was now too late to post it. I then further reflected that every human being on earth, save a paltry 21 of them, is not in my class; and by no measure aside from the fact that my syllabus has passed it by is this post on a 128-year-old book any more or less relevant now than it was a week and a half ago. So here it is.

In case you've never read Sumner -- and I wouldn't particularly recommend it to anyone who isn't studying intellectual history; unlike many of the books I'm assigning, I don't think it's a Valuable Book That Ought To Be Widely Read (even if it was an influential one, a usefully representative one, and one that made for a good assignment) -- his basic answer to the question of "well, what do social classes owe each other?" is "nothing". (In fact, when I asked my class that very question early on, one student piped up with that entirely apt one-word answer (much to my relief: it showed they got the basic point.))

As a book, I'd have to say that it was both rhetorically masterful and intellectually shoddy.

Rhetorically masterful: even if you don't agree with his viewpoint (and while a lot of contemporary right-wingers say things which are along the same lines, I imagine that fairly few of them would actually support the repeal of, say, child-labor laws), he sweeps you along, until you are filled with emotion over the visceral injustice of taxing one person to help another. How dare you! It is an argument that has a lot of easy, intuitive persuasiveness (as Sumner made it but also -- importantly -- even divorced from his particular articulation of it (hence its insidiousness.)) It sounds right at first blush as long as you don't think about it too hard.

To be sure, Sumner rhetoric isn't particularly subtle. (But then, to be effective, it doesn't have to be.) One aspect that struck me was the language he chose to describe what it is that those pushing social programs (which Sumner mostly defines as not only any economic assistance but even most economic regulation, as well as such things as public schools (I say "mostly" because, as I'll get to in a moment, he isn't always consistent about it)) seek to do for others. Sumner says that the desire was to make the worse off "as comfortable" as others, to fulfill their "desires", give them "everything of which they feel the need", grant them "satisfaction": terms that make you think of an evening out of luxuries. Only once does he let slip and admit that one of the realities that the programs he decries seek to prevent is that of people literally starving to death. (To say nothing of children neglected by their parents, children being denied schooling, people being forced by market conditions to work twelve hour days, working under unsafe conditions, and so forth.) His talk of comfort, desire and satisfaction are, at the least, shockingly misleading, if not downright dishonest.

And considered just as a rational argument the book is a mess. This is true in far too many ways for me to enumerate, so I'll just touch on a few.

Sumner is woefully inconsistent in how he uses terms and in his reasoning. For example: one of Sumner's key ideas is that of the "Forgotten Man". But he doesn't use this notion at all consistently. Here's how he defines it early on:
In all these schemes and projects the organized intervention of society through the State is either planned or hoped for, and the State is thus made to become the protector and guardian of certain classes. The agents who are to direct the State action are, of course, the reformers and philanthropists. Their schemes, therefore, may always be reduced to this type--that A and B decide what C shall do for D. It will be interesting to inquire, at a later period of our discussion, who C is, and what the effect is upon him of all these arrangements. In all the discussions attention is concentrated on A and B, the noble social reformers, and on D, the "poor man." I call C the Forgotten Man, because I have never seen that any notice was taken of him in any of the discussions.
Under this definition -- and it's not a throwaway, it's one he returns to multiple times -- the "Forgotten Man" is anyone who pays taxes for a social program while not benefiting from it.

Now already we're in a conceptual muddle, since Sumner never even notices the possibility that A, B, C and D might be different people in the case of different programs -- that looking at an entire government everyone might variously play the roles of C and D. Perhaps he means that, overall, the sheer dollar-value one gets from or contributes to the programs can be added up. But he doesn't say that; that's me trying to clear up a mess he leaves.

And of course it gets worse if you consider that, over time, the roles of C and D might switch. A child who goes to public school and gains benefit thereby (playing D) then grows up to be a productive taxpayer (playing C).* This complexity -- hardly a particularly obscure possibility -- is never mentioned, and makes utter hash out of a great many of Sumner's arguments.

Instead of following his own rigorous definition (while not abandoning it either, but always returning to it whenever convenient for his purposes) Sumner clearly has an image of who he takes the "forgotten man" to be, just as he has an image of those he takes to be the beneficiaries of government largess too. Here's how he describes the "forgotten man" latter on:
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.
Needless to say, this is wildly more specific than his actual definition -- unless you assume (as Sumner at times, but not always, seems to) that everyone who does not benefit from Government help will be honest, sober, industrious, unknown, and so forth -- a fairly far-fetched notion.

What's going on, clearly, is that Sumner is working with an imaged representative example of what he takes the "forgotten man" to be. (The same is true with those who get help, who propose that the government do it, and other roles in his little medieval morality play.) And either through deliberate distortion or through simply sloppiness he varies between his strict, "scientific" definition and his fictional, platonic character. It's an understandable slippage -- people typically think about concepts by comparing cases to core examples, even if we try to formally define them -- but it doesn't make it any less sloppy.

And of course that's just one example. Vague claims, poorly defined terms, inconsistent arguments, key points asserted with neither argument nor evidence to back them up, unnoticed assumptions -- and on and on, ad nauseum -- all abound.

Another example that struck me, for instance, was that Sumner was inconsistent about why a strict laissez-faire system was desirable. Often he seemed to be making a moral claim, saying that it is simply unjust to tax any one person to benefit another; at other times, however, he seemed to be making a practical argument, that such schemes always leave people worse off (everyone? or on average? in how long a term? -- he's not clear.) Again, which one he's saying matters -- some of his claims fail one test, some fail another, but he conveniently slips back and forth depending on what he needs to establish at the time.

He's inconsistent about what he thinks the state should do -- in some places he seems to be a minarchist, supporting only police, soldiers and the enforcement of contracts; in other cases he implies that there are genuine things the state should do for the public interest besides that, "public interests and common necessities" -- transportation infrastructure, I suppose. Maybe parks. But he not only fails to establish what divides those things which are genuinely good state interests from those that are immoral/unwise attempts to coerce charity (why do bridges and police pass the test while public schools and food safety inspectors do not?), he doesn't even seem to notice that this is an issue he needs to address. But a strict minarchist could apply lightly edited arguments from Sumner against the idea (which, again, he inconsistently supports) of any public works; and an anarchist could apply them against the minarchist. (If D needs police or contract enforcement and C doesn't, isn't it robbery to tax C to hire police to protect D? Let D hire private security and private-sector contract enforcers; if they don't, then they deserve whatever they get.) I'm not saying that such lines can't be drawn, but they clearly need to be drawn, not taken as obvious.

And so forth. Anyone looking for evidence that conservative ideas are nothing more than "irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas" will find plenty to go on here. Dressed up as science, it's all an emotional screed based on some romanticized image of the hardworking forgotten man.

The book is a mess. A philosophy class in basic argumentative errors could profitably use this as a text -- but, then again, so could a class in rhetoric. Because it's persuasive. Which is the really horrifying thing.

A few odds and ends. I think that Robert Bannister is clearly right (in his book Social Darwinism: Science and Myth in Anglo-American Social Thought (1989)) that "social Darwinism" isn't playing much of a role here. (Contradicting the earlier, influential argument by Richard Hofstadter in Social Darwinism in American Thought (1944, 2nd ed. 1955) which made Sumner the poster boy for Social Darwinism.) Sumner is arguing a classic laissez-faire position based on economics and some poorly thought-through political philosophy.

In his final chapter, Sumner compares the sociologist (which is what he called himself -- and, indeed, he is one of the founders of American sociology) to a physicist, and says that he has simply described the workings of the world without moral judgments, and that anyone who complains that he is ignoring moral judgments doesn't understand how science works. If you take it as humor, it's kind of funny.

Sumner said that, given government assistance, it's better to be poor than to be rich, since the latter have to support the former. It's an argument that was made again.

Finally, I kept thinking while reading the book that you could probably run for office as a Republican in this country using only quotes from Sumner for your speeches and soundbites. It feels quite contemporary -- or, perhaps, late 90's: the Republican party since 2001 has had such a large strain of fear-mongering about terrorism (and, after that, about undocumented immigrants and then Obama) that that part seems wildly missing. But as far as the attitude towards social policy goes, it's quite current. I kept thinking of Phil Gramm (my least favorite politician until the advent of W.) Oddly enough, though -- here and there, in the corners -- Sumner comes across as quite Victorian in some of his moral assumptions, beliefs in progress, and so forth. Not much -- you could edit them out pretty easily and still have plenty left for a Congressional campaign. But they integrate far more naturally than I might have guessed beforehand.

*This particular example is complicated by the fact that, here and there, Sumner seems to argue that the person who would be playing C in this example are the parents, who are getting someone else to pay for their kids' education, and not the children themselves. But he seems perfectly content to let the children suffer for the sins of their parents, which means they are either going to be "D" (i.e. helped by the state) or the victims of Sumner's hoped-for neglect.

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