What Social Classes Owe to Each Other/V

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What Social Classes Owe to Each Other by William Graham Sumner
V: That we must have few men, if we want strong men.



In our modern revolt against the mediæval notions of hereditary honor and hereditary shame we have gone too far, for we have lost the appreciation of the true dependence of children on parents. We have a glib phrase about "the accident of birth," but it would puzzle anybody to tell what it means. If A takes B to wife, it is not an accident that he took B rather than C, D, or any other woman; and if A and B have a child, X, that child's ties to ancestry and posterity, and his relations to the human race, into which he has been born through A and B, are in no sense accidental. The child's interest in the question whether A should have married B or C is as material as anything one can conceive of, and the fortune which made X the son of A, and not of another man, is the most material fact in his destiny. If these things were better understood public opinion about the ethics of marriage and parentage would undergo a most salutary change. In following the modern tendency of opinion we have lost sight of the due responsibility of parents, and our legislation has thrown upon some parents the responsibility, not only of their own children, but of those of others.

The relation of parents and children is the only case of sacrifice in Nature. Elsewhere equivalence of exchange prevails rigorously. The parents, however, hand down to their children the return for all which they had themselves inherited from their ancestors. They ought to hand down the inheritance with increase. It is by this relation that the human race keeps up a constantly advancing contest with Nature. The penalty of ceasing an aggressive behavior toward the hardships of life on the part of mankind is, that we go backward. We cannot stand still. Now, parental affection constitutes the personal motive which drives every man in his place to an aggressive and conquering policy toward the limiting conditions of human life. Affection for wife and children is also the greatest motive to social ambition and personal self- respect—that is, to what is technically called a "high standard of living."

Some people are greatly shocked to read of what is called Malthusianism,[1] when they read it in a book, who would be greatly ashamed of themselves if they did not practise Malthusianism in their own affairs. Among respectable people a man who took upon himself the cares and expenses of a family before he had secured a regular trade or profession, or had accumulated some capital, and who allowed his wife to lose caste, and his children to be dirty, ragged, and neglected, would be severely blamed by the public opinion of the community. The standard of living which a man makes for himself and his family, if he means to earn it, and does not formulate it as a demand which he means to make on his fellow-men, is a gauge of his self-respect; and a high standard of living is the moral limit which an intelligent body of men sets for itself far inside of the natural limits of the sustaining power of the land, which latter limit is set by starvation, pestilence, and war. But a high standard of living restrains population; that is, if we hold up to the higher standard of men, we must have fewer of them.

Taking men as they have been and are, they are subjects of passion, emotion, and instinct. Only the élite of the race has yet been raised to the point where reason and conscience can even curb the lower motive forces. For the mass of mankind, therefore, the price of better things is too severe, for that price can be summed up in one word—self-control. The consequence is, that for all but a few of us the limit of attainment in life in the best case is to live out our term, to pay our debts, to place three or four children in a position to support themselves in a position as good as the father's was, and there to make the account balance.

Since we must all live, in the civilized organization of society, on the existing capital; and since those who have only come out even have not accumulated any of the capital, have no claim to own it, and cannot leave it to their children; and since those who own land have parted with their capital for it, which capital has passed back through other hands into industrial employment, how is a man who has inherited neither land nor capital to secure a living? He must give his productive energy to apply capital to land for the further production of wealth, and he must secure a share in the existing capital by a contract relation to those who own it.

Undoubtedly the man who possesses capital has a great advantage over the man who has no capital, in all the struggle for existence. Think of two men who want to lift a weight, one of whom has a lever, and the other must apply his hands directly; think of two men tilling the soil, one of whom uses his hands or a stick, while the other has a horse and a plough; think of two men in conflict with a wild animal, one of whom has only a stick or a stone, while the other has a repeating rifle; think of two men who are sick, one of whom can travel, command medical skill, get space, light, air, and water, while the other lacks all these things. 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. If it were not so capital would not be formed. Capital is only formed by self-denial, and if the possession of it did not secure advantages and superiorities of a high order men would never submit to what is necessary to get it. The first accumulation costs by far the most, and the rate of increase by profits at first seems pitiful. Among the metaphors which partially illustrate capital—all of which, however, are imperfect and inadequate—the snow-ball is useful to show some facts about capital. Its first accumulation is slow, but as it proceeds the accumulation becomes rapid in a high ratio, and the element of self-denial declines. This fact, also, is favorable to the accumulation of capital, for if the self-denial continued to be as great per unit when the accumulation had become great, there would speedily come a point at which further accumulation would not pay. The man who has capital has secured his future, won leisure which he can employ in winning secondary objects of necessity and advantage, and emancipated himself from those things in life which are gross and belittling. The possession of capital is, therefore, an indispensable prerequisite of educational, scientific, and moral goods. This is not saying that a man in the narrowest circumstances may not be a good man. It is saying that the extension and elevation of all the moral and metaphysical interests of the race are conditioned on that extension of civilization of which capital is the prerequisite, and that he who has capital can participate in and move along with the highest developments of his time. Hence it appears that the man who has his self-denial before him, however good may be his intention, cannot be as the man who has his self-denial behind him. Some seem to think that this is very unjust, but they get their notions of justice from some occult source of inspiration, not from observing the facts of this world as it has been made and exists.

The maxim, or injunction, to which a study of capital leads us is, Get capital. In a community where the standard of living is high, and the conditions of production are favorable, there is a wide margin within which an individual may practise self-denial and win capital without suffering, if he has not the charge of a family. That it requires energy, courage, perseverance, and prudence is not to be denied. Any one who believes that any good thing on this earth can be got without those virtues may believe in the philosopher's stone or the fountain of youth. If there were any Utopia its inhabitants would certainly be very insipid and characterless.

Those who have neither capital nor land unquestionably have a closer class interest than landlords or capitalists. If one of those who are in either of the latter classes is a spendthrift he loses his advantage. If the non-capitalists increase their numbers, they surrender themselves into the hands of the landlords and capitalists. They compete with each other for food until they run up the rent of land, and they compete with each other for wages until they give the capitalist a great amount of productive energy for a given amount of capital. If some of them are economical and prudent in the midst of a class which saves nothing and marries early, the few prudent suffer for the folly of the rest, since they can only get current rates of wages; and if these are low the margin out of which to make savings by special personal effort is narrow. No instance has yet been seen of a society composed of a class of great capitalists and a class of laborers who had fallen into a caste of permanent drudges. Probably no such thing is possible so long as landlords especially remain as a third class, and so long as society continues to develop strong classes of merchants, financiers, professional men, and other classes. If it were conceivable that non-capitalist laborers should give up struggling to become capitalists, should give way to vulgar enjoyments and passions, should recklessly increase their numbers, and should become a permanent caste, they might with some justice be called proletarians. The name has been adopted by some professed labor leaders, but it really should be considered insulting. If there were such a proletariat it would be hopelessly in the hands of a body of plutocratic capitalists, and a society so organized would, no doubt, be far worse than a society composed only of nobles and serfs, which is the worst society the world has seen in modern times.

At every turn, therefore, it appears that the number of men and the quality of men limit each other, and that the question whether we shall have more men or better men is of most importance to the class which has neither land nor capital.


  1. Thomas Malthus's An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) describes a population growth model in which greater population ultimately leads to greater poverty. (Wikisource contributor note)