William Graham Sumner Was No “Social Darwinist”
One of the first free market books I read, back in the early 1960s, was William Graham Sumner’s What Social Classes Owe Each Other.
The book originally appeared in 1883. It is often smeared for its “social Darwinism.” According to this interpretation, Sumner thinks that people must struggle with each other in order to live. Humanity will progress if the “fittest,” that is, the strongest, win out, and the weak are left to fall by the wayside. I’ll try to show that this isn’t what he says. To the contrary, he gives a forceful and effective defense of the free market, along lines that will be familiar to readers of Mises and Rothbard.
Sumner’s key point is not that people struggle with each other, but rather that people need to provide for themselves in order to live. To do this they must organize themselves in a society: people would not be able to survive if they tried to live on their own. And there are two basic types of society, ones organized by status and by contract.
In the Middle Ages men were united by custom and prescription into associations, ranks, guilds, and communities of various kinds. These ties endured as long as life lasted. Consequently society was dependent, throughout all its details, on status, and the tie, or bond, was sentimental. In our modern state, and in the United States more than anywhere else, the social structure is based on contract, and status is of the least importance. Contract, however, is rational—even rationalistic. It is also realistic, cold, and matter-of-fact.
Which one of these types is better? Sumner’s answer is that although a status society has its good points, we cannot go back to it; and this is a fortunate thing, because people are far better off in a society based on contract.
That we have lost some grace and elegance is undeniable. That life once held more poetry and romance is true enough. But it seems impossib
Article from Mises Wire