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CONSEQUENCES OF INCREASED SOCIAL POWER - 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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CONSEQUENCES OF INCREASED SOCIAL POWER
CONSEQUENCES OF INCREASED SOCIAL POWER
Let us ask what are some of the consequences of advancing social power. We ought, by taking up that question, to find out whether some of the social phenomena which interest us most are due to exuberant social power or are products of philosophy.
Social force is won by advance in the mechanic arts, or in science, or by the acquisition of more land. The history of inventions and discoveries, however, teaches us that they are never won arbitrarily, but always appear upon the lines of effort which lie directly in the path of human advance for the time being. Take the case of the two most important inventions which helped to break up the mediaeval order — those of gunpowder and printing. The invention of gunpowder came at the end of a series of efforts and experiments which had been continued for centuries for the purpose of attaining some more effective means of carrying on war, the chief business of the time. The invention of printing was produced out of the effort to find cheaper means of multiplying religious books, so as to meet the religious sentiment which was the most powerful sentiment of the time.
The discovery of America opened immense tracts of new land to settlement and use by the crowded populations of Western Europe. This latter gain was for a long time not available; it was necessary that the mechanic arts should go through a long development and come up to the point where they could assist in reaching the new land, before the latter could really affect the situation. The last hundred years have seen a prodigious advance in the mechanic arts which has made the new land of America and other continents easily available. The use of the new land has reacted upon the old population; it has made food cheap and abundant and this has, as it were, won wider space and given leisure. It has increased capital and thus made it possible to push on inventions; for it must be noticed that no man and no society can push on discovery and invention when the utmost powers are all the time strained to win means of subsistence from day to day; it is only when there is some surplus power already at one's disposal that time can be spent on science and invention, which do nothing for the time being for the support of the worker. The great advance in invention during the last hundred years is itself one consequence of increased social power.
The increase of social power and of capital has far outstripped the growth of population, and the inevitable result, as has already been said, has been to cause a demand for more men. An increase in numbers only increases the power, for the existing resources are by no means exploited to the utmost; more men mean more help, more accomplishment, greater well-being for all.
The United States is the country in which the two great elements of advancing industrial power, the new land and the improvements in the mechanic arts, have combined. It is therefore small marvel “that America marks the highest level not only of material well-being, but of intelligence and happiness, which the race has yet attained.” Whether the causes of that fact have been correctly observed or the inferences from it have been correctly drawn, is another question.
The first consequence worth noticing, then, as following from the possession of exuberant social power, is that the elasticity and vitality of the society are high and that it can afford to take political and social risks. The field for social experimentation is very wide; as the society is going ahead all the time, its circumstances and surroundings are changing all the time. The “wisdom of the past” easily comes to be a by-word; prescription and precedent are odious, for they appear, not as protection and support, but as trammels. The sacrifice of past achievements goes on constantly and deserves no regret because the gain of the new creations is so very great. Is there any merit of men or institutions in this state of facts? There certainly is not. The men are easily wise when ignorance bears scarcely any penalties; the institutions easily win the credit of social effectiveness when their evil results, if they have any that are evil and hindering, are lost and overwhelmed in the great onward tide of power. It the real social tide is one of swelling and expanding creation or renovation, what can stop it? What can do it any great harm? How do we know, then, whether a given institution is assisting the advance or is hindering it? We certainly can get no light on that point by simply noting that the institution in question constitutes a part of the social aggregate which is moving on.
Another consequence of exuberant social power is that the sort of liberty which consists in pursuing one's own will without restraint becomes in a large measure possible, and that, of course, men are educated to believe in that kind of liberty. That kind of liberty is only possible in a society which possesses a large surplus of social power, very widely distributed — in that case each man is free with respect to nature, and then all are easily free with respect to each other. All men are easily equal when all are substantially well off, because the social pressure is slight; it is intense social pressure which draws the society out into ranks and classes. The relaxation of social pressure lets the ranks and classes come together again.
The three classes which form the skeleton of any aristocratic system, that is, of a system in which classes are widely separated from each other, are landlords, tenants, and laborers. The landlords are the holders of the land. The tenants are the holders of capital, because the land must be intensively cultivated, which cannot be done without capital. The laborers are those who have neither capital nor land and who seek a livelihood by putting personal services into the industrial organization.
If the population is dense and the land is all occupied, the possession of it is the possession of a natural monopoly of a thing which is in high demand. The landowners, therefore, possess an immense social advantage. The tenants and the whole middle capitalist class, which stands on the same social plane with them, possess the second social advantage. The laborers are those who possess neither. The three, therefore, are widely separated one from the other as respects the conditions of material well-being and earthly happiness.
Suppose then that new social power is won — let it be assumed that some new mechanical force is obtained or that new areas of land are made accessible — what is the effect on the position of classes and on the relative difference in the status of classes? Plainly the social pressure is relaxed. The landlord finds that his monopoly is no longer worth as much as before, because the supply of it has been greatly increased. His rents decline and his tenants refuse any longer to be tenants because it is so easy to obtain land and become their own landlords. In their turn they find it harder to hire laborers; for when land is abundant intensive cultivation is no longer necessary and no longer pays. Capital is no longer indispensable for the cultivation, or a small amount of it will suffice. The laborer, therefore, is no longer differentiated from the other classes. He can easily obtain land and also the minimum of capital necessary to cultivate it. Thus the landlord comes down to be his own tenant and his own laborer. The tenant owns his own land and is his own laborer. The laborer becomes his own landlord and his own employer. The three classes have melted into one. It is no longer worth while to own a large estate in land, for the owner could not economically exploit it. A substantial equality of all on the middle rank is the inevitable social consequence, with democracy and all the other cognate political results.
At the same time, since capital is no longer so necessary to cultivate the ground, since the accumulation of capital goes on with constantly greater rapidity on account of the large proportion of the product to the labor under the new state of social power, and since the capital cannot be made productive without new supplies of labor, the men are on all accounts in demand and are worth more and more when measured in capital. The class, therefore, which was, under the first supposition, the worst off, obtains under the second supposition the command of the situation.
Is not this the correct interpretation of what we see going on about us? If it is, then the dogmatic or philosophical theorems, instead of being the cause of our social arrangements, are only the metaphysical dress which we have amused ourselves by imagining upon them. We are not free and equal because Jefferson put it into the Declaration of Independence that we were born so; but Jefferson could put it into the Declaration of Independence that all men are born free and equal because the economic relations existing in America made the members of society to all intents and purposes free and equal. It makes some difference to him who desires to attain to a correct social philosophy which of these ways of looking at the matter is true to the facts.