FRANKLIN Delano Roosevelt famously used the term “forgotten man” in a 1932 speech to describe those at the bottom of the economic pyramid whom, he felt, government should aid.
But the originator of the phrase “forgotten man” — William Graham Sumner (1840-1910) — had a whole different meaning in mind. Sumner aimed to expose the seemingly good intentions of government to reveal the truth of what was really happening. He boiled it down to a simple schematic: A and B decide what C should do for X.
Note the usually overlooked little matter of the fellow in position C. All the focus of political discourse is on what A and B should decide and the wants and needs of X, whether just or not. But what about C?
Here we come to a universal truth that forms a core part of the argument of Sumner’s great book It Is Not Wicked to Be Rich: “The State cannot get a cent for any man without taking it from some other man, and this latter must be a man who has produced and saved it. The latter is the Forgotten Man.”
Sumner was a Yale professor and something of a polymath of the social sciences. It Is Not Wicked to Be Rich was originally published way back in 1883 as What Social Classes Owe to Each Other. It is a tightly argued, powerful little book that gets right to the heart of the nature of political relationships — of the nature of rights and duties. Sumner argues for a society based on contract and associations forged by men of their own volition who cannot forcibly extract something from another.
It may be hard to believe that something written so long ago can be so relevant to the complexities our own day. But this book is essentially about the timeless principles and ageless logic of a free society. In our era of bailouts and gigantic government budgets, we need this book now more than ever.
No doubt there are many other books that put forth similar ideas. So why republish this one? I have an easy answer: Because Sumner was such a darn good writer and clear thinker. His book is fun to read. He turns over many ideas in memorable ways. As a result, it is a powerful statement of libertarian ideas. His book deserves more attention than it gets. My own cherished copy is well marked with favored passages.
“History is only a tiresome repetition of one story,” he writes in one of those passages. That story is one of people trying to control the reins of government power for their own ends. This is not a weakness confined to generals or priests, to businessmen or scholars. It does not strike certain ages or races of people. It is not a matter of who rules or what type of government exists. (Democracies too can be tyrants.) The weakness is a universal trait, Sumner maintains, rooted in human nature.
For Sumner, the aim of laws and institutions ought to be to protect men against these vices of human nature and against arbitrary power. They ought to guarantee liberty. There are to be no compromises. “All institutions are to be tested by the degree to which they guarantee liberty,” Sumner writes.
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. Anyone who so argues has lost the bearing and relation of all the facts and factors in a free state.
To Sumner, it is a profound injustice when government uses its powers to arrogate rights from one group for another. Unfortunately, this is not a common view today. A simple illustration comes right out of the political dialogue in our own times. The “right to health care,” for instance, is a topic of much debate.
Sumner would have been appalled. As he makes plain, the “right to health care” is simply the enforcement of a duty on someone else to provide it to you. All government efforts to provide free or subsidized health care — as well as education and retirement, two other perennial hot topics — are in the same ugly moral position. They represent a kind of theft.
Often, people will justify such takings by appealing to the democratic process. This, in fact, is a key danger of democracy, Sumner felt. People are eager to assume rights at the expense of others. “That is, that they will use the political power to plunder those who have,” Sumner writes. “Those who have” often includes that murky term “the rich.” But for Sumner, the accumulation of wealth was not something to fear or to seek to erase.
Sumner has some great lines about wealth and the efforts to limit it. Wealth in a free society is earned by serving the wants and needs of your fellow men. People are rewarded on the basis of demand for their goods or services. Here is one of the passages that I’ve marked in my copy:
“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.”
It would be a mistake to think of Sumner as some sort of crude defender of privilege or some uncaring social Darwinist. Sumner is eminently practical. He is a realist. He emphasizes repeatedly that life is full of uncertainties. No one can make guarantees against hardships. Moreover, one man’s hardships and misfortunes do not create a moral claim on another man’s efforts.
I also think of Sumner as a true gentleman. He is aware of the plight of humanity on this lonely planet and sympathetic to the human story, while adhering to an honorable code of conduct that, sadly, seems almost quaint today. The only duties men owe to each other, Sumner believes, are “respect, courtesy, and goodwill.” He is eloquent on this point:
“Men, therefore, owe to men, in the chances and perils of this life, aid and sympathy, on account of the common participation in human frailty and folly. This observation, however, puts aid and sympathy in the field of private and personal relations, under the regulation of reason and conscience.”
What a simple and beautiful life philosophy! Yet few see how often government power inspires a totally different set of assumptions.
The existence of government power sets man against man. It sets those who would achieve and create against those who would steal through elections and laws and taxes. In the end, the burden of government falls on that Forgotten Man, that real Forgotten Man. It is he who has worked and saved and done the right things to take care of himself and his family. Yet now he is told he must pay again for others who have not worked and saved as he.
I’ve often thought the most powerful arguments for a free society were the moral arguments, the ones that appeal to our simple sense of fair play. Sumner’s book does just that, with a cracking style and an unerring eye for the realities of life. My guess is that you won’t be able to put it down once you start. And I’m sure you’ll have lots of choice passages of your own.