Front Page Titles (by Subject) POWER AND PROGRESS - The Challenge of Facts and other Essays
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POWER AND PROGRESS - 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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POWER AND PROGRESS
POWER AND PROGRESS
In its simplest and most concrete form, social power consists in the power of an individual man to produce by his labor, from the ground, more than the subsistence of one man. Its grades and degrees follow the increasing ratio of the product to the labor. If one man can produce subsistence for a number, the population rapidly increases, a society grows up, and increases soon to great numbers. The men are “in demand,” as we have expressed it before; the surplus product of those already here constitutes a supply of subsistence all ready for others, and thus measures the demand for them as an economic quantity. The greater the productive power of the members of society the more luxurious will be the life in it; existence will be broad and ample in its comfort, and all the social capital will be rapidly multiplied. The members of the society all participate in the advantage of the social capital where liberty exists, and imperfectly even where it does not exist, for not even slaves could be prevented from sharing in those facilities and advantages which are public and general in a highly civilized state. Thus the power of the individual to produce much turns into a social power.
It is a painful disillusion to find that increasing social power does not tend toward a final social condition in which rest and contentment would be found after a task finished and executed, but that the problem has only changed its form. If the society, after taking up new elements, tends toward a new equilibrium in which those new elements are to be absorbed and assimilated, the period of change and transition is found to be the period of prosperity, expansion, and happiness. Rest and peace would mean, not quiet and unruffled enjoyment, but stagnation, routine, and decay. A new measure of energy and strength is won, but it drives us on again; we make new achievements, and get once more all the exhilaration of advancing motion; but we throw aside and lose much of our old winnings. It is never in the quiet enjoyment of rest, or in exhausting the enjoyment which comes from consuming the achievements of the past that either power or happiness is won — it is in the work of achievement, in the sense of gain and progress, in the movement and transition from one plane to another. How then is it possible to imagine that the human race will ever get its work done? If it ever stops to rest it will retrograde. It will then have its work to begin all over again. Poverty, if ever conquered and banished, will come again through the vices engendered in a world without poverty, and so the conflict with it must begin again.
The Egyptians owed their power and civilization to the fact that the Nile mud so enriched the valley every season that one man's labor could produce subsistence for many. When the population increased, the power of social maintenance was not diminished but increased. When there was a great population there, using the land with very painstaking labor according to the stage of the arts, an immense surplus was produced which raised war, statecraft, fine arts, science, and religion up to a very high plane. Then they tried to satisfy the demand for men by slaves, that is, persons who contributed to the social power to their utmost yet shared in it only under the narrowest limitations. The system, after reaching the full flower of prosperity of which it was capable, became rigid, chiefly, as it appears, because the sanction of religion was given to the traditional and stereotyped forms. Also the power of social support which lay in the fertility of the soil had been exploited to its utmost. The arts by which more product might have been won advanced only very slowly — scarcely at all. There was hardly any emigration to new land. Hence a culmination was reached, after which there must be decline and decay. The achievements of the Egyptians were made in the period when they were growing up to the measure of the chances which they possessed.
In their case we can see a nation pass through the stages from the first to the last. Other nations, which are in full contact with the rest of the human race, undergo constantly renewed impulses to advance and they undergo periods of reaction. The phenomena are broken and confused and it is not easy to interpret them.
In the case of the individual also it is emphatically true that it is not the man who is rich who is happy; it is the man who is growing richer than he has been. Hence this great happiness is possible to all, for it is just as intense for a man who has been used to five hundred a year and is now winning eight hundred as it is to the man who has been having twenty thousand and is now winning twenty-five thousand.
Progress, therefore, means winning more social power; it goes along with increase of power and is the proof and the realization of such increase. The arts of life all contribute to the increase. Although it has been said that social power means power of an individual to produce, from the land, a surplus of subsistence beyond his own needs, yet it will not be understood that this power is increased by agricultural improvements only; it is increased by all improvements in any department of industrial effort; it is especially increased by the extension of the cultivated area of the globe, that is, by settling new countries. This last mode of increasing social power is also the easiest.
From the increase of industrial power there follows advance in science, fine arts, literature, and education, which react again on the social power to stimulate it and accelerate the rate of its activity, thus increasing its efficiency.
The point which here seems most important is to keep the sequence and relation of things distinct and clear. The notion that progress proceeds in the first instance from intellectual or moral stimuli, or that progress is really something in the world of thought, and not of sense, has led to the most disappointing and abortive efforts to teach and “elevate” interior races or neglected classes. The ancestors of the present civilized races did not win their civilization by any such path; they built it up through centuries of toil from a foundation of surplus material means, which they won through improvements in the industrial arts and in the economic organization.
In this connection also we are brought to another question which must be regarded as one of the most important to be clearly answered for successful discussion of social problems. It is assumed to be the task of political economy or social science to account for “the degradation of mankind,” or to find out the reasons for degradation of mankind as a preliminary step toward the cure of that degradation — which latter is taken to be the task of those sciences. But we are met at once by the question: Is the degradation of mankind a problem? There have been many schools of philosophers who have believed that men once were pure and elevated and that they have fallen into degradation; the old theologians, the classical peoples, the believers in a state of nature in which all was pure, simple, and good, all held this notion in one form or another. For any of these schools it was undoubtedly a reasonable question as to how the primitive bliss had been lost.
At present, however, we no longer start from any assumptions of that kind at all. We know as a matter of fact that mankind has never lived in any primitive golden age or stage of nature; its earliest state was a state of degradation, which was almost universal. If we could trace the history of the race further back we must believe that we should find the degradation universal. The question is not, therefore, how the race ever fell into degradation, measuring degradation from some ideal state of elevation; but, how the race ever escaped from degradation as far as it has done so, reckoning its present condition from what we know about the primitive condition of the race. The mystery is not that there is still a measure of degradation, but that there are any men who have emerged from the primitive degradation.
It is evident that the difference in these two points of view is as wide as any which could be imagined in this domain. The latter is the only one which has any warant in the facts of our knowledge. If it is true, then all social discussion which proceeds from the other point of view is mere fiction — and if we do not know which is true, then we cannot yet make any fruitful discussion at all.
For our present purpose, then, we observe that the possession of social power in any society or in any generation, produces social movement, with expansion, reiterated new achievement, social hope and enthusiasm, with all that we call progress; and that this movement is so directed that degradation is behind it. The problem is not to account for degradation, because if we relax our efforts we shall fall back into it. The problem is how to maintain the effort and develop the power so as to keep up the movement away from it. It is true that the movement is by no means in a direct line away from primitive barbarism, and that it is subject to retrograde movements toward degradation; also that, even on its line of advance, it meets with and seems even to produce new forms of social degradation. But the fact that the primitive barbarism is to any degree left behind, or that it is even transformed, is the commanding fact which sets our point of view for us, and determines the interpretation which we must give to all the phenomena and to all the smaller and narrower movements. If we do not master the point which is here presented we can have no social science at all.