Front Page Titles (by Subject) Sumner, Social Darwinism & Property - Literature of Liberty, Winter 1981, vol. 4, No. 4
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Sumner, Social Darwinism & Property - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Winter 1981, vol. 4, No. 4 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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Sumner, Social Darwinism & Property
“Social Darwinism and the Liberal Tradition: The Case of William Graham Sumner.” The South Atlantic Quarterly 80(Winter 1981):61–76.
Social Darwinism in late nineteenth-century America intellectually challenged the prevailing political and social values. The most systematic of the Social Darwinist thinkers, Herbert Spencer (1820–1903), as well as his American disciple, Yale sociologist William Graham Sumner (1840–1910), borrowed freely from Darwinian evolutionary theory. They tried to show that social life was subject to particular laws of development and that man's ethical values were and should reflect the evolutionary process. Even though man was still a moral agent, he was unable to act effectively in his moral capacity while pursuing a preconceived design. This belief challenged a basic premise of American liberal democratic theory — that individual aspiration was the central stimulus of social life.
The authors, however, contend that Social Darwinism in America, as interpreted by William Sumner, drew upon themes and ideas that were firmly established in American political consciousness. In fact, the introduction of such notions as the struggle and competition for survival dramatized and highlighted some of the central concerns of the liberal tradition. Stripping it of its optimism and its benevolent view of man, Sumner, nevertheless, did not discard liberal theory, but his synthesis contained inherent tensions.
Like Spencer, Sumner placed the individual at the center of his sociology. Society, he believed, could improve only if men removed restrictions on their economic life. For Sumner, individual liberty had value because it facilitated competitive interaction between groups.
There was no inherent contradiction in Sumner's mind between social harmony and competitive struggle, for one could not flourish without the other. Undoubtedly, he lacked both the optimism concerning moral sentiments and the concern for the aesthetic that characterized the Scottish Philosophers and the Jeffersonians. Nonetheless, he did not challenge their fundamental belief in the primacy of the individual. Indeed, Sumner believed that he was reinforcing liberalism by removing the unverifiable humanist elements of the eighteenth century and substituting a hard-edged, scientific foundation.
Sumner's reputation among historians as a conservative rests primarily on his attitude toward property. The authors dispute this characterization. True enough, Sumner did not seriously challenge the concentrations of wealth in his day. He regarded property as the natural reward for hard effort and success in the struggle for life, and he believed that any interference with the ownership of capital would undermine the basic reward mechanism. Nonetheless, unlike conservatives, Sumner rejected the idea of a fixed, historic social order and advocated (much like the liberals) voluntarism and laws to limit the authority of the state.
According to Sumner, property not only enabled man to run his affairs more efficiently, but also to liberate his energies. He thus attested to the liberal faith that acquisition served to confirm man's reason and to give society a special cohesion.
Sumner, therefore, was hardly a conservative masquerading in liberal clothing. He espoused a materialistic ethic and believed that capitalism would serve to harness liberal ideals to industrial life in late nineteenth-century America. True, Sumner echoed the views of the entrepreneurial class. Yet he managed to rehabilitate the owners of wealth. They were no longer Whigs, at odds with the democratic temper, but the very standard-bearers of the liberal persuasion in America.