Front Page Titles (by Subject) WHAT EMANCIPATES - The Challenge of Facts and other Essays
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WHAT EMANCIPATES - 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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It is an incident of the tendency to realism of our time that historical studies have won in esteem. This is undoubtedly a great gain; but it is attended by a series of affectations such as are apparently inseparable from a new movement. We must have a new code of historical study before the abuses of history can be set aside; nowhere is this need more apparent than in economic history and in the history of social institutions. It is hardly too much to say that the received opinions about the historical development of social forces are all incorrect; that is to say, they are one-sided, imperfect, colored by prejudices of various schools of philosophy, or so stated as to support pet notions of our time. The student of history, therefore, finds himself constantly forced to modify the most currently received statements of fact, or he finds that the historical facts, when correctly understood, take on very different significance even if the formal statement of them is allowed to stand.
No history is good for anything except as it is interpreted correctly; and it is in the interpretation that the chance is offered for all the old arbitrary elements of philosophy and personal prejudice to come in, as well as some new ones peculiar to this field of study. Especially when the interpretations are wide, and step over great periods of history in grand strides, is it safe to say that they are worthless, because it is impossible to verify them. Almost any generalization can find a color of truth, if the historical scope of it is wide enough. It is a very school-boy notion that historical generalisations have any less peril in them than philosophical generalizations.
These remarks are especially worthy of affirmation whenever our attention is invited to alleged interpretations of the social developments of modem times, and when assertions are made about the causes and significance of the phases through which civilization has passed during the last five hundred years. The contrast of the Middle Ages with our time; the status of classes then and now; the effect of machinery; the rise of the captain of industry; the alleged advancing inequality of fortunes — such are topics which invite to the easiest possible generalization. Within twenty-five years there have been put in circulation, and are to be found now in current use as established facts, assertions on all these points which are really no better than myths.
I submit that nothing but power can account for results and that, therefore, if men have been emancipated from any ills, it must be that they have been emancipated by virtue of new power of some kind, over which they have obtained disposal. Therefore explanations of the expansion of human well-being may be offered which are “historical” in the sense of referring to notions which were once in fashion, or to acts, ordinances, and resolutions which were once upon a time adopted; but such explanations win no value from their pretended “historical” character. They do not allege an adequate cause. No men have ever emancipated themselves from slavery, poverty, ignorance, vice, or any other ill, by simply resolving to do so. No men, so far as I can learn, have ever reached the point of adopting a grand resolution to emancipate themselves from distress, unless they had some new power at their disposal, which raised them to a new plane on which such new adjustment of themselves to their past and their future was possible.
It is an easy assumption, and one which seems to be adopted without discussion, that men who break into revolt must be worse off than other men. There are no facts to support such an opinion. Men who are low, and are falling, do not revolt; it is men who, although they may be low, are rising, who revolt. Men who are on the verge of starvation do not strike for higher wages; it is only men who have strength to spare who spend any of it on a strike. It is the man who is rising whose ambition is awakened; it is he before whose mind new hopes arise, for, having won something, a man's mind always opens to the idea of winning more. On the contrary, he who has always lost ground or has never been able to win any, has neither energy nor will to engage in a contest which involves more than the satisfaction of the moment. How could it be otherwise? We must learn to observe and to think in social matters as we do in others. An extra expenditure of energy is an incontrovertible proof that there is extra energy to expend; therefore it cannot be a proof of decline or decay. Labor disputes and labor organizations are the best possible proof that the “laboring classes,” technically so-called, are well off and gaining; but the advancing comfort of the mass of mankind, during any period, is a proof that they have won new physical and social power. No explanation of the increase in comfort can be correct, therefore, unless it is given in terms of this new power.
I therefore make bold to doubt whether there is any truth in the notion that new institutions have been produced by new ideas, and whether any new philosophies have ever become original molding forces in social development. To me it seems, on the contrary, that the new social power makes the new ideas, and that the command of new power of sustaining life on earth gives birth to new philosophies.
Acts, ordinances, and resolutions fall dead unless there is a social field fit for them; history is full of the skeletons of such still-born enactments. The same may be said of institutions. Institutions have had immeasurable importance in human history, but nowadays institution has become a word to juggle with. There have been all sorts of institutions, and those of them which have been invented by human wit have only served to bring human wit into scorn. Institutions which have been strong and effective have grown, we scarcely know how, because the soil and the seed were present. If that is so, then behind institutions we must seek the causes and conditions which brought them into being and nourished their growth. That brings us to social forces again.
In civil affairs it is most commonly believed that we can make constitutions as we choose, and that the wisdom of constitution-makers shapes the destinies of peoples. Is this so? Have we a republic because the men of 1787 voted so? Are our institutions democratic because those men disliked aristocracy and loved democracy? I do not so read history, although the current expressions in our literature all imply that such is the case. It was the industrial and social power of the masses of the population in a new country with unlimited land which made us democratic. It is the reflex influence of the new countries on the old centers of civilization which is breaking down aristocracy, and making them democratic too; but it is because the opening of the new continents has made a demand for men — it has brought about a call for more population. The consequence is that those who are here can marry, can support a family, and can at the same time save capital, or, if they like it better, they can work fewer hours a day. Hence we find our age full of discussion on these matters; but does any one suppose that men could discuss emigration, family comfort, politics, wages, rates, and eight-hour laws, unless there were conditions which brought these things within the range of possibility? The great question then is, what are those conditions? But in the discussion it hardly seems to be noted that they exist and that in them lies the key of the whole matter. If this view is correct, a social science which investigates those conditions is the only social science which has value; history will have its use as serving that science, and if it does not do so it only degenerates into a new form of scholasticism.
The acquisition and use of unlimited supplies of new land has made living easy; it has taken all terror from the increase of population — in fact, has made it a help and a blessing; it has made it easy to accumulate capital and has produced leisure for invention. This increase of power has, consequently, produced expansion of being in every direction and in every form.
The extension of acreage lowers the value of land and of land products against all other things, including services; it increases food products and raw materials, that is, subsistence and materials for laborers. Inventions increase the power of machines and multiply through them all the forms of clothing, furniture, fuel, lights, literature, etc. All this makes capital abundant and interest low; it also makes real wages high, and, by reducing prices, increases the purchasing power of money wages. The conjuncture is, therefore, all in favor of wage-earners and non-capitalists. They have the social power; they, therefore, take the political power. We may invent such institutions as we choose, but they will all speedily change into forms consistent with this distribution of social forces, or die. All the tendencies of the time are sure to stream toward the focus of the great predominating force, in the system, for the time; and the masters of this force are sure to be flattered and courted.