Wednesday, February 28, 2007

"Society" is a fine word, and it saves us the trouble of thinking…

William Graham Sumner

We are told every day that great social problems stand before us and demand a solution, and we are assailed by oracles, threats, and warnings in reference to those problems. There is a school of writers who are playing quite a role as the heralds of the coming duty and the coming woe. They assume to speak for a large, but vague and undefined, constituency, who set the task, exact a fulfillment, and threaten punishment for default. The task or problem is not specifically defined. Part of the task which devolves on those who are subject to the duty is to define the problem. They are told only that something is the matter: that it behooves them to find out what it is, and how to correct it, and then to work out the cure. All this is more or less truculently set forth.
Nothing is surer under this sun, despite any amount of increase in standard wealth or general health and well-being, than that imagined mass grievances and contrived mass restitutions will be aired by those who have little or no claim to either, as is shown by the opening paragraph of William Graham Sumner's introduction to his 1883 book, What the Social Classes Owe to Each Other (available online at the Ludwig Von Mises Institute, link via Alice the Camel). The only novel thing is that humanity itself has been stretched so thin as an abstraction by the political rhetorics of the would-be managers of human endeavour that only new and utter abstractions like the "environment" sustain any real attention these days, and so the superstar "heralds of the coming duty and the coming woe" are now people like David Suzuki and Al Gore.

But from then to now, the imprecations are still hurled at the same people who don't even merit abstraction because they're expected to pay for them instead. When Sumner writes in Chapter Nine:
The type and formula of most schemes of philanthropy or humanitarianism is this: A and B put their heads together to decide what C shall be made to do for D. The radical vice of all these schemes, from a sociological point of view, is that C is not allowed a voice in the matter, and his position, character, and interests, as well as the ultimate effects on society through C's interests, are entirely overlooked. I call C the Forgotten Man.
… D may just as easily be substituted as a person with an inscrutable quality like the environment instead. C, the Forgotten Man, is of course the majority of people whose industry makes possible the abstractions for which they are prevailed to pay, because those abstractions are necessarily relative to the wealth that can be expected to bear the cost of them. What Sumner may not have anticipated is that public education is busy about the business of obviating C.

As to be expected, Sumner's abstraction of the Forgotten Man himself suffers from the same equivocations and imprecision that all abstractions require, and a few of his observations elsewhere are coloured by strange or long-forgotten prejudices, but its construction contains a great deal of explanatory value. So What the Social Classes Owe to Each Other is highly recommended reading.