Popular Science Monthly/Volume 24/December 1883/Suggestions on Social Subjects

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643260Popular Science Monthly Volume 24 December 1883 — Suggestions on Social Subjects1883William Graham Sumner



IN the introduction to his little volume, Professor Sumner remarks: "During the last ten years I have read a great many books and articles, especially by German writers, in which an attempt has been made to set up 'the state' as an entity, having conscience, power, and will sublimated above human limitations, and as constituting a tutelary genius over us all. I have never been able to find in history or experience anything to fit this concept. I once lived in Germany for two years, but I certainly saw nothing of it there then. Whether the state which Bismarck is molding will fit the notion is at best a matter of faith and hope. My notion of the state has dwindled with growing experience of life. As an abstraction, the state is to me only All-of-us. In practice—that is, when it exercises will or adopts a line of action—it is only a little group of men chosen in a very hap-hazard way by the majority of us to perform certain services for all of us. The majority do not go about their selection very rationally, and they are almost always disappointed by the results of their own operation. Hence 'the state,' instead of offering resources of wisdom, right reason, and pure moral sense, beyond what the average of us possess, generally offers much less of all these things. Furthermore, it often turns out in practice that 'the state' is not even the known and accredited servants of the state, but, as has been well said, is only some obscure clerk hidden in the recesses of a government bureau into whose power the chance has fallen for the moment to pull one of the stops which control the government machine. In former days it often happened that 'the state' was a barber, a fiddler, or a bad woman. In our day it often happens that 'the state' is a little functionary on whom a big functionary is forced to depend."

In Chapter I—"On a New Philosophy: that Poverty is the Best Policy"—Professor Sumner says: "It is commonly asserted that there are in the United States no classes, and any allusion to classes is resented. On the other hand, we constantly read and hear discussions of social topics in which the existence of social classes is assumed as a simple fact. 'The poor,' 'the weak,' 'the laborers,' are expressions which are used as if they had exact and well-understood definitions. Discussions are made to bear upon the assumed rights and misfortunes of certain social classes; and all public speaking and writing consists in a large measure of the discussion of general plans for meeting the wishes of classes of people who have not been able to satisfy their own desires. These classes are sometimes discontented and sometimes not. Sometimes they do not know that anything is amiss with them until the 'friends of humanity' come to them with offers of aid. Sometimes they are discontented and envious. They do not take their achievements as a fair measure of their rights. They do not blame themselves or their parents for their lot as compared with that of other people. Sometimes they claim that they have a right to everything of which they feel the need for their happiness on earth. To make such a claim against God or Nature would, of course, be only to say that we claim a right to live on earth if we can. But God and Nature have ordained the chances and conditions of life on earth once for all. The case can not be reopened. We can not get a revision of the laws of human life. We are absolutely shut up to the need and duty, if we would learn how to live happily, of investigating the laws of Nature, and deducing the rules of right living in the world as it is. These are very wearisome and commonplace tasks. They consist in labor and self-denial repeated over and over again, in learning and doing. When the people whose claims we are considering are told to apply themselves to these tasks, they become irritated and feel almost insulted. They formulate their claims as rights against society—that is, against some other men. In their view they have a right not only to pursue happiness, but to get it; and, if they fail to get it, they think they have, a claim to the aid of other men—that is, to the labor and self-denial of other men—to get it for them. They find orators and poets who tell them that they have grievances so long as they have unsatisfied desires. . . . The humanitarians, philanthropists, and reformers, looking at the facts of life as they present themselves, find enough which is sad and unpromising in the condition of many members of society. They see wealth and poverty side by side. They note great inequality of social position and social chances. They eagerly set about the attempt to account for what they see, and to devise schemes for remedying what they do not like. In their eagerness to recommend the less fortunate classes to pity and consideration, they forget all about the rights of other classes; they gloss over all the faults of the classes in question, and they exaggerate their misfortunes and their virtues. They invent new theories of property, distorting rights and perpetrating injustice, as any one is sure to do who sets about the readjustment of social relations with the interests of one group distinctly before his mind and the interests of all other groups thrown into the background. When I have read certain of these discussions, I have thought that it must be quite disreputable to be respectable, quite dishonest to own property, quite unjust to go one's own way and earn one's own living, and that the only really admirable person was the good-for-nothing. The man who by his own effort raises himself above poverty appears, in these discussions, to be of no account. The man who has done nothing to raise himself above poverty finds that the social doctors flock about him, bringing the capital which they have collected from the other class, and promising him the aid of the state to give him what the other had to work for. . . . On the theories of the social philosophers to whom I have referred, we should get a new maxim of judicious living: 'Poverty is the best policy. If you get wealth, you will have to support other people; if you do not get wealth, it will be the duty of other people to support you.'"

In his second chapter, the author dilates upon the proposition that "A Free Man is a Sovereign, but that a Sovereign can not take 'Tips.'" He discourses as follows: "A free man, a free country, liberty and equality, are terms in constant use among us. They are employed as watchwords as soon as any social question comes into discussion. It is right that they should be so used. They ought to contain the broadest convictions, and most positive faiths of the nation, and so they ought to be available for the consideration of questions of detail. . . . Probably the popular notion is, that liberty means doing as one has a mind to, and that it is a metaphysical or sentimental good. A little observation shows that there is no such thing in this world as doing as one has a mind to. There is no man, from the tramp up to the President, the Pope, or the Czar, who can do as he has a mind to. Moreover, liberty is not a metaphysical or sentimental thing at all. It is positive, practical, and actual. It is produced and maintained by law and institutions, and is therefore concrete and historical. Sometimes we speak distinctly of civil liberty; but if there be any liberty other than civil liberty that is, liberty under law—it is a mere fiction of the school-men which they may be left to discus. . . . The notions of civil liberty which we have inherited is that of a status created for the individually laws and institutions, the effect of which is that each man is guaranteed the use of all his own powers exclusively for his own welfare. It is not at all a matter of elections, or universal suffrage, or democracy. All institutions are to be tested by the degree to which they guarantee liberty. It is not to be admitted for a moment that liberty is a means to social ends, and that it may be impaired for major considerations. Any one who so argues has lost the bearing and relation of all the facts and factors in a free state. A human being has a life to live, a career to run. He is a center of powers to work and of capacities to suffer. What his powers may be, whether they can carry him far or not; what his chances may be, whether wide or restricted; what his fortune may be, whether to suffer much or little are questions of his personal destiny which he must work out and endure as he can; but for all that concerns the bearing of the society and its institutions upon that man, and upon the sum of happiness to which he can attain during his life on earth, the product of all history and all philosophy up to this time is summed up in the doctrine that he should be left free to do the most for himself that he can, and should be guaranteed the exclusive enjoyment of all that he does. If the society that is to say, in plain terms, if his fellow-men, either individually, by groups, or in a mass—impinge upon him otherwise than to surround him with neutral conditions of security, they must do so under the strictest responsibility to justify themselves. . . . It is not at all the function of the state to make men happy. They must make themselves happy in their own way and at their own risk. The functions of the state lie entirely in the conditions or chances under which the pursuit of happiness is carried on, so far as those conditions or chances can be affected by civil organization. Hence, liberty for labor and security for earnings are the ends for which civil institutions exist, not means which, may be employed for ulterior ends. . . . Democracy, in order to be true to itself, and to develop into a sound working system, must oppose the same cold resistance to any claims for favor on the ground of poverty as on the ground of birth and rank. It can no more admit to public discussion, as within the range of possible action, any schemes for coddling and helping wage-receivers than it could entertain schemes for restricting political power to wage-payers. It must put down schemes for making 'the rich' pay for whatever 'the poor' want, just as it tramples on the old theories that only the rich are fit to regulate society. One needs but to watch our periodical literature to see the danger that democracy will be construed as a system of favoring a new privileged class of the many and the poor. . . . In a free state every man is held and expected to take care of himself and his family, to make no trouble for his neighbor, and to contribute his full share to public interests and common necessities. If he fails in this, he throws burdens on others. He does not thereby acquire rights against the others. On the contrary, he only accumulates obligations toward them; and, if he is allowed to make his deficiencies a ground of new claims, he passes over into the position of a privileged or petted person—emancipated from duties, endowed with claims. This is the inevitable result of combining democratic political theories with humanitarian social theories.

Chapter III. "That it is not wicked to be rich; nay, even that it is not wicked to be richer than one's Neighbor." "We all agree that he is a good member of society who works his way up from poverty to wealth, but, as soon as he has worked his way up, we begin to regard him with suspicion as a dangerous member of society. A newspaper starts the silly fallacy that 'the rich are rich because the poor are industrious,' and it is copied from one end of the country to the other, as if it were a brilliant apothegm. 'Capital' is denounced by writers and speakers who have never taken the trouble to find out what capital is. . . . The great gains of a great capitalist in a modern state must be put under the head of wages of superintendence. Any one who believes that any great enterprise of an industrial character can be started without labor must have little experience of life. . . . Especially in a new country, where many tasks are waiting, where resources are strained to the utmost all the time, the judgment, courage, and perseverance required to organize new enterprises and carry them to success are sometimes heroic. Persons who possess the necessary qualifications obtain great reward. They ought to do so; . . . the ability to organize and conduct industrial, commercial, or financial enterprises is rare; the great captains of industry are as rare as great generals. . . . 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. If we should set a limit to the accumulation of wealth, we should say to our most valuable producers, 'We do not want you to do us the services which you best understand how to perform, beyond a certain point.' It would be like killing off our generals in war. . . . Human society lives at a constant strain forward and upward, and those who have most interest that this strain be successfully kept up, that the social organization be perfected, and that capital be increased, are those at the bottom. . . . Those who to-day enjoy the most complete emancipation from the hardships of human life, and the greatest command over the conditions of existence, simply show us the best that man has yet been able to do. Can we all reach that standard by wishing for it? Can we all vote it to each other? If we pull down those who are most fortunate and successful, shall we not by that very act defeat our own object? Those who are trying to reason out any issue from this tangle of false notions of society and of history are only involving themselves in hopeless absurdities and contradictions. If any man is not in the first rank who might get there, let him put forth new energy and take his place. If any man is not in the front rank, although he has done his best, how can he be advanced at all? Certainly in no way save by pushing down any one else who is forced to contribute to his advancement."

Chapter V. "That we must have Few Men if we want Strong Men." "Undoubtedly the man who possesses capital has a great advantage over the man who has no capital, in all the struggle for existence. . . . 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 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, can not 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 author expresses the opinion, in Chapter VI, "That He who would be well taken care of must take care of Himself," and in enforcing this idea he observes: "The fashion of the time is to run to government boards, commissions, and inspectors, to set right everything which is wrong. No experience seems to damp the faith of our public in these instrumentalities. The English liberals in the middle of this century seemed to have full grasp of the principle of liberty, and to be fixed and established in favor of non-interference. Since they have come to power, however, they have adopted the old instrumentalities, and have greatly multiplied them since they have had a great number of reforms to carry out. They seem to think that interference is good if only they interfere. In this country the party which is 'in' always interferes, and the party which is 'out' favors non-interference. The system of interference is a complete failure of the end it aims at, and sooner or later will fall of its own expense and be swept away. The two notions—one to regulate things by a committee of control, and the other to let things regulate themselves by the conflict of interests between free men—are diametrically opposed; and the former is corrupting to free institutions, because men who are taught to expect government inspectors to come and take care of them lose all true education in liberty. If we have been all wrong for the last three hundred years in aiming at a fuller realization of individual liberty as a condition of general and widely diffused happiness, then we must turn back to paternalism, discipline, and authority; but to have a combination of liberty and dependence is impossible."

Chapter VIII is a very spicy discussion "On the Value as a Sociological Principle of the Rule to mind one's Own Business," and here the author remarks: "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. The common notion, however, seems to be that one has a duty to society as a special and separate thing, and that this duty consists in considering and deciding what other people ought to do. Now, the man who can do anything for or about anybody else than himself is fit to be the head of a family; and when he becomes head of a family he has duties to his wife and children in addition to the former big duty. Then, again, any man who can take care of himself and his family is in a very exceptional position if he does not find in his immediate surroundings people who need his care and have some sort of personal claim upon him. If, now, he is able to fulfill all this and to take care of anybody outside his family and his dependants, he must have a surplus of energy, wisdom, and moral virtue, beyond what he needs for his own business. No man has this; for a family is a charge which is capable of infinite development, and no man could suffice to the full measure of duty for which a family may draw upon him. Neither can a man give to society so advantageous an employment of his services, whatever they are, in any other way as by spending them on his family. . . . The danger of minding other people's business is twofold: First, there is the danger that a man may leave his own business unattended to; and, second, there is the danger of an impertinent interference with another's affairs. The 'friends of humanity' almost always run into both dangers. I am one of humanity, and I do not want any volunteer friends. I regard friendship as mutual, and I want to have my say about it. I suppose that other components of humanity feel in the same way about it. If so, they must regard any one who assumes the role of a friend of humanity as impertinent. The reference of the friend of humanity back to his own business is obviously the next step. . . . Yet we are constantly annoyed, and the Legislatures are kept constantly busy, by the people who have made up their minds that it is wise and conducive to happiness to live in a certain way, and who want to compel everybody else to live in their way. Some people have decided to spend Sunday in a certain way, and they want laws passed to make other people spend Sunday in the same way. Some people have resolved to be teetotalers, and they want a law passed to make everybody else a teetotaler. Some people have resolved to eschew luxury, and they want taxes laid to make others eschew luxury. The taxing power is especially something after which the reformer's finger always itches. Sometimes there is an element of self-interest in the proposed reformation as when a publisher wanted a duty imposed on books, to keep Americans from reading books which would unsettle their Americanism; and when artists wanted a tax laid on pictures, to save Americans from buying bad paintings. . . . Amateur social doctors are like the amateur physicians—they always begin with the question of remedies, and they go at this without any diagnosis, or any knowledge of the anatomy or physiology of society. They never have any doubt of the efficacy of their remedies. They never take account of any ulterior effects which may be apprehended from the remedy itself. It generally troubles them not a whit that their remedy implies a complete reconstruction of society, or even a reconstruction of human nature. Against all such social quackery the obvious injunction to the quacks is, to mind their own business. . . . We have inherited a vast number of social ills which never came from nature. They are the complicated products of all the tinkering, meddling, and blundering of social doctors in the past. These products of social quackery are now buttressed by habit, fashion, prejudice, platitudinarian thinking, and new quackery in political economy and social science. . . . Society, therefore, does not need any care or supervision. If we can acquire a science of society based on observation of phenomena and study of forces, we may hope to gain some ground slowly toward the elimination of old errors and the re-establishment of a sound and natural social order. What we gain that way will be by growth, never in the world by any reconstruction of society on the plan of some enthusiastic social architect. The latter is only repeating the old error over again, and postponing all our chances of real improvement. Society needs, first of all, to be freed from these meddlers; that is, to be let alone. Here we are, then, once more back at the old doctrine—laissez faire. Let us translate it into blunt English, and it will read, 'Mind your own business.' It is nothing but the doctrine of liberty. Let every man be happy in his own way. If his sphere of action and interest impinges on that of any other man, there will have to be compromise and adjustment. Wait for the occasion. Do not attempt to generalize those interferences, or to plan for them a priori. We have a body of laws and institutions which have grown up as occasion has occurred for adjusting rights. Let the same process go on. Practice the utmost reserve possible in your interferences, even of this kind, and by no means seize occasion for interfering with the natural adjustments. . . . To mind one's own business is a purely negative and unproductive injunction; but, taking social matters as they are just now, it is a sociological principle of the first importance. There might be developed a grand philosophy on the basis of minding one's own business."

Chapter IX considers "the Case of a Certain Man who is never thought of." "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 on 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 can never 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.

"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.

"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?

"Certainly there is no harder thing to do than to employ capital charitably. It would be extreme folly to say that nothing of that sort ought to be done, but I fully believe that to-day the next most pernicious thing to vice is charity in its broad and popular sense."