Front Page Titles (by Subject) THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE DEMAND FOR MEN - The Challenge of Facts and other Essays
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THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE DEMAND FOR MEN - William Graham Sumner, The Challenge of Facts and other Essays 
The Challenge of Facts and other Essays, ed. Albert Galloway Keller (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1914).
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THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE DEMAND FOR MEN
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE DEMAND FOR MEN
To some people it appears a shame to say that men are subject to supply and demand; to others it seems that we want to know the facts about man and the world in which he lives, just as they are, without regard to anything else whatsoever. To the latter, therefore, it seems irrelevant and idle to talk about what is consonant with, or what is hostile to man's notions of his own dignity. It will be found that men are subject to supply and demand, that the whole industrial organization is regulated by supply and demand, and that any correct comprehension of the existing industrial system must proceed from supply and demand.
After Gracchus conquered Sardinia, slaves were so abundant at Rome that “cheap as a Sardinian” passed into a proverb; Roman slavery owed its peculiar harshness and cold-heartedness to the fact that slaves were so abundant at Rome in the last century of the Republic that it did not pay to spare them. The policy in regard to slave marriage was such as to prevent their natural increase. When, later, conquest declined and slaves were fewer, their treatment became far more humane, not because Romans were less cold-hearted (they were, in fact, more so), but because slaves grew rarer and more valuable. Probably this state of things also helped to convert slaves into coloni.
Sir Henry Maine says that want and distress converted men into beasts of burden in the later days of the Carlovingians. The reason for this seems clear. It was that the conditions of existence in the society of the time were such that men were reduced again to the first necessities, with only the most meager means of satisfying them. The population was, therefore, declining, and the wretched men who were living struggled with each other in desperate agony, or endeavored to win subsistence from nature under the hardest conceivable exertion. Any one, therefore, who at that time, by any means whatsoever, possessed a store of means of subsistence or could command resources, could have men under his control without number.
At those times human life was held most cheap, and physical pain or distress was scarcely noticed. When a thousand men could be sent to death at a Roman feast, how could Romans be expected to hold human life dear or to shudder at bloodshed? When fist-law prevailed, and every man's hand was against every other man, when any one who had anything could be sure of it only so long as he could command force to defend it, it is not strange that torture and cruelty were practised in this world and that the current conceptions of punishment in the other world should make the blood of the modern man run cold.
In general, then, when the men are too numerous for the means of subsistence, the struggle for existence is fierce. The finer sentiments decline; selfishness comes out again from the repression under which culture binds it; the social tie is loosened; all the dark sufferings of which humanity is capable become familiar phenomena. Men are habituated to see distorted bodies, harsh and frightful diseases, famine and pestilence; they find out what depths of debasement humanity is capable of. Hideous crimes are perpetrated; monstrous superstitions are embraced even by the most cultivated members of society; vices otherwise inconceivable become common, and fester in the mass of society; culture is lost; education dies out; the arts and sciences decline. All this follows for the most simple and obvious of all reasons: because a man whose whole soul is absorbed in a struggle to get enough to eat, will give up his manners, his morals, his education, or that of his children, and will thus, step by step, withdraw from and surrender everything else in order simply to maintain existence. Indeed, it is a fact of familiar knowledge that, under the stress of misery, all the finer acquisitions and sentiments slowly but steadily perish.
The converse of this statement, however, is true; and it is for the sake of the converse that we have now set forth what has already been said. If the subsistence of men is in excess of the number of men, all the opposite results are produced, for in that case the demand is in excess of the supply. The all-important thing under supply and demand is to know how the conjuncture stands. The party in the market whose demand for the goods of others is low while their demand for his goods is high, has command of the market, and the conjuncture is said to be in his favor; on the other hand, he whose demand for the products of others is high, while their demand for his products is low, is at a disadvantage in the market, and the conjuncture is against him. He, therefore, who brings only his natural, unskilled powers to market, when many others are offering the same thing, will win but meager subsistence from the stock of food, clothing, etc., in the market; on the other hand, he who brings personal services to market, when human energy is eagerly wanted to develop land and apply capital at the hand of those who possess land and capital, will be able to demand large quotas of the existing stock of subsistence in return for a day's time spent in supplying the thing which is in demand and without which the other conditions of abundance and prosperity cannot be made available.
With this observation we strike out and lay aside nearly all the so-called labor question, and nearly all the mystery of the alleged conflict of labor and capital. The conjuncture is in favor of the laborer, technically so-called; accordingly he can, to a great degree, have his own way with the other parties in the market.
We have not, however, developed our proposition merely for the sake of this negative and controversial result. On the contrary, its importance lies in the deduction yet to be made of the sense and significance of a state of the labor market, continuing for centuries, in which the conjuncture is in favor of the unskilled laborers. Such has been the case, if we take the terms of the proposition in their broadest and most liberal sense, since the great discoveries of the sixteenth century which opened the outlying continents to the masses of the population of Europe.
Whenever a period in which men are in demand supervenes upon a period in which they have been present in excess, the struggle for existence is softened. The disregard of human life and human suffering gives place to the contrary sentiments. It might seem to be logical that when all were suffering, all would sympathize with each other and that when many were well off, they would become inwrapped in selfish indifference to the few who, by exception, were suffering; but this is one of the cases, of which there are so many in social science, in which observation corrects the easy inference. It warns us again that what seems a simple and easy deduction is not even presumptively true. It is when all are suffering that men become callous to suffering; each sees in it what may be his own fate a moment later; it comes to be regarded as usual, natural, a part of the human lot. On the other hand, when most are in comfort and prosperity, misery pains them; it seems to be exceptional, unreasonable, unnecessary; their sympathies are painfully excited and for their own relief they seek to do away with it.
When men are in demand the average comfort is high; the grinding labor which distorts the body and superinduces diseases is avoided; the diet is good; the worst maladies from poor food, unwholesome crowding, unsanitary modes of living, and the like are done away with. Our discussions run on as if unsanitary arrangements in our homes and cities were totally unnecessary; but we ought to understand that nothing but the possession of capital in a certain degree of abundance enables us to take up the question of sanitary arrangements at all. If we had unlimited means we could absolutely set aside all danger from unsanitary conditions. If we were poor, we should have to submit to the perils and fatalities of unsanitary arrangements without remedy.
Other illustrations on the same line of thought will follow.