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WHAT THE “SOCIAL QUESTION” IS - 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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WHAT THE “SOCIAL QUESTION” IS
WHAT THE “SOCIAL QUESTION” IS
We have before us the idea that no social effect can be produced without an adequate cause; there can be no result which we may not account for, upon suitable study, by the forces which were at work behind it. It is a favorite notion that “ideas” are causes, that “thought” is a force, and that sentiment, or feeling, may control society. Intellectual affections of any kind whatsoever may determine the direction in which force shall be exerted; but they are not forces which are efficient to produce results. It is impossible to stir a step in any direction which has been selected without capital: we cannot subsist men, i.e., laborers, without it; we cannot sustain study or science without it; we cannot recruit the wasted energies of the race without it; we cannot win leisure for deliberation without it; we cannot, therefore, undertake greater tasks, that is, make progress, without it.
It is the possession of an abundance of capital which sets us free to write and wrangle about “social questions”; it is the possession of abundance of capital which enables us to maintain “progress,” and spend largely upon philanthropy, and increase our numbers at the same time. This point is worth a little more elucidation; when we get a social science this will be one of the controlling points of view in it.
The first task of men is self-maintenance, or nutrition; the second is the maintenance of the race. The two tasks are in antagonism with each other, for they are both demands on one source of power, viz., the productive power of the individual. The interplay of these two in the family has been touched upon before, and it is by no means limited to the family; this interplay extends through the whole social domain. If the social body undertakes more social burdens, it increases the second demand on the individual, and contracts his power of self-maintenance. From this there is no possible escape, and it may readily be seen how far much of our current social discussion is from touching the merits of the social questions, because it fails to run upon the lines which are laid down for all discussion by this observation of the conditions of the case. What is true, and what helps to explain the current modes of thought, is the fact that the capital at the disposal of society is so great that the diminutions of individual well-being by social burdens all fall upon an outside margin of superfluity, and so do not reach to the limits of actual necessity or crush the producer down to misery.
If the social burdens of government, public philanthropy, public defense, public entertainment and amusement, public glory, public education, did subtract from the product of the society to such an extent as to produce misery, this would react upon the numbers, and it would do it in different ways. It would make the producer less able to support children and bring them to maturity, and it would force the society to give up part of the effort by which it now maintains indigent and defective classes.
Therefore there has never been a period of civilization in which there has not been a social question, and it is safe to say that no time ever will come when there will not be a social question. In a state of barbarism the social question consists in this: whether the tribe can maintain its numbers, or fighting strength, and at the same time do its fighting. The competition of life is then between tribe and tribe. The Zulus, for instance, solved it by stealing all their wives, that is, they let others bear the expense of bringing up the wives for them; they also were forbidden to marry except by permission of the king, which he never gave except to a meritorious warrior who had served ten or fifteen years. Other organizations equally remarkable have been devised for solving the problem, but my point now is, that there is a problem, and that it cannot be solved except by some adequate and appropriate application of industrial force. The current notion is that there is not, or need not be, or ought not to be any such problem, and that if there is such an apparent problem, all that is necessary is to “pass a law” such as some social speculator will easily devise.
In the higher forms of civilization there always has been a “social question.” The modern democratic temper is irritated by a mention of social classes; I have heard it indignantly denied that there are classes among us. The mediaeval classes were defined by status, that is, by rank and birth; the one heterogeneous social element was the middle class population of the towns. That class was industrial by its definition; its power came from capital, of which it was the maker and possessor. The other classes needed capital more and more — hence the strife of land and city, of noble and bourgeoisie, of rank and capital. The social questions of the last five hundred years have turned on these antagonisms. They are by no means reduced to peaceful harmony yet, and they play a large part in the expositions of the socialists, especially when the latter take an historical turn.
The middle class, having substantially won its victory, has begun, by the inevitable tendency of all such massive social movements, to break up into sections which quarrel with each other. Of course new differentiations have begun inside of it. Peasants, artisans, and bourgeoisie allied with each other against a common foe, viz., hereditary right; but, having broken the power of that tradition, they must of course put another notion in its place. They introduced free contract and competition. This is no sooner done, however, than new groups are formed having antagonistic interests inside of the new society. The result is industrial classes, or social groupings formed upon economic and industrial relations.
This new grouping is, in fact, a grand advance, for it is a new and higher organization and it signifies increased industrial power; but it is inevitably attended by a new “social question,” produced by the struggle of these classes. The great question about which the whole struggle turns is, of course, this: whether some one class is getting its share of the fruits of the common victory. The victory has been social so far as it has meant the emancipation of classes and the endowment of all with equal rights before the law; it has been a victory over the ills of life so far as it has consisted in the acquisition of capital as power to have and do. This power of capital has been becoming constantly more valuable both for luxury, leisure, and enjoyment, and also for social control. The social question appears in the form of a complaint that the non-capitalists have been put off with “liberty” and “equal rights” in order that they might have no share in the capital, that is, in the leisure and luxury for which the age is athirst. Our current literature bears ample testimony to the correctness of what is here asserted about the social question. If we should deny that there are classes in our society we should only prove our inability to recognize constant social elements under the changed phases in which they present themselves.
The point which I now beg to emphasize is this: if there had been no victory, there would be no social question in its present form. If there had not been an immense enhancement of luxury, culture, and power, the classes and the masses would never have come into antagonism to each other. The popular conception of it is that a common victory has been won (that is, the victory over nature by the acquisition of more industrial power) and that some have taken all the fruits, leaving to others nothing. Hence the demand for justice and equality and the passionate assertion of the obligation of classes to each other. Hence, also, the attempt to use the other victory (that over class privilege in the domain of civil institutions) to rectify the wrong done in the industrial domain.
If it were true that a part of those who have won the social and industrial victories had been deprived of their share in the fruits thereof, then they would have no hope of compelling any attention to their complaints, for they would have no force at their disposal. The fact that they can raise a social question and push on the fight over it proves that they have some power at their command. Mediaeval peasants had very few rights and scarcely any property; they could defend themselves only by some wild outbreak, like the Jacquerie, which did no good. The modern non-capital classes are in no such condition as that.
What force have they then? It is no doubt promptly answered, “Numbers.” Numbers, however, are a source of weakness, not of strength, unless there is ample capital for their support. If there were here large numbers of men who were on the verge of starvation, they would submit to any terms in order to get food. Men who had capital (which we must always remember is subsistence, weapons, and tools) could hire armies of them to do any work which was demanded of them. It is, therefore, only because we all do share in the fruits of the industrial victory and in the power of the capital which has been won, that we have extra power with which to maintain our social conflicts. Democracy constantly vaunts itself against capital, and sets the power of numbers against the power of “money,” but democracy, the power of the masses, is the greatest proof of the power of capital, for democracy cannot exist in any society unless the physical conditions of social power are present there in such abundance, and in such general distribution, that all the mass of the population is maintained up to the level below which they can not perform the operations which democracy assumes that they can and will perform.
It is, therefore, the demand for men, consisting in the capital and tools on hand, ready for their support and use, which maintains a number of men on a level where they can struggle to get all the material welfare which the labor market really holds for them, and where they can be democrats and win both full civil rights and a share, perhaps a predominant share, in political power. This is the only correct explanation of the power of the masses in politics and in the labor market; for it is the only one which refers the phenomena to an adequate and appropriate cause whose due connection with the phenomena can be perceived through the social relations. Of course this explanation is in direct contradiction to such explanations as refer the phenomena to sentimental, ethical, doctrinal, or political causes, consisting in the tenets of this or that social philosophy.