Front Page Titles (by Subject) THE SHIFTING OF RESPONSIBILITY - The Challenge of Facts and other Essays
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THE SHIFTING OF RESPONSIBILITY - 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 SHIFTING OF RESPONSIBILITY
THE SHIFTING OF RESPONSIBILITY
If there are any ethical propositions which may be accepted as reasonably established, the following are among the number: to every one his own; that responsibility should be equal to liberty; that rights and duties are correlative; and that those should reap the consequences who have set in action the causes. The socialistic and semi-socialistic propositions which are before the public are immoral in that they all sin against these ethical principles.
We are using, at the same time, two weights and measures. We have at the same time two sets of dogmas, one for politics and the other for social matters. We affirm that all men are equal. If they are so, and if a state can be founded on the assumption that they are so, then each one of them must take his share in the burdens of the society; especially must each one take the responsibility for himself. No sooner, however, is this inference drawn than we are told that there are some people who are not equal to others and who cannot be held to the same duties or responsibilities. They are weak, ignorant, undisciplined, poor, vicious, or otherwise unfit. It is asserted that the strong, learned, well-trained, rich, and virtuous are bound to take care of the aforesaid persons. The democratic doctrine in politics is that wisdom resides in the masses; that it is a false and aristocratic doctrine to maintain that the educated or trained men are better fitted to direct common public interests than the uneducated; that, in fact, the educated men fail conspicuously whenever they undertake to lead, and that there is a resource of strong, untrained common sense in the masses on which a state may be built in complete security.
No sooner, however, have we accepted this doctrine as orthodox and indisputable matter of political faith, than we are told that educated men and others who have enjoyed exceptional advantages, or who have acquired any of those forms of training which make men better — not than other men, but than they would themselves have been without the expenditure of capital and labor — have a duty to perform: to lead, guide, and instruct the real rulers. It is asserted that when the masses go astray it is the fault of the educated classes who did not instruct them. Therefore we arrive at this doctrine: if a young man desires to fit himself to discharge the duties of life well, he needs to spend his youth in study and work, he needs to accumulate capital and to subject himself to discipline. This is a duty which is incumbent on all and is enjoined on all, without exception. If, however, some conform to it and some do not, let it not be maintained that the former shall have wealth and honor and power in the society. On the contrary, only the latter shall have those things; for, since all the things which improve men are hard and irksome, and the mass of mankind shirk them, and the power rests with the mass, the “minority” receive as their share the function of persuading the “majority” to do right, if they can, and if they do not succeed, they bear the responsibility for whatever goes wrong. Such a doctrine is profoundly immoral, for there is a dislocation involved in it between work and reward.
We encourage our children to earn and save and we stimulate them to look forward to the accumulation of wealth. We explain to them the advantages of capital. We point out to them the woes of poverty, the consequences of improvidence, the penalties of idleness; the better parents we are the more we do this. We try to make them understand the world in which they live, so that they may hold sound principles and direct their energies wisely. The motive and purpose is to avoid the penalties which they see unwise men suffer, and to attain to the material prosperity and comfort which all men need and desire. Some obey; some do not. Those who obey might think that they are justified, then, in having, holding, and enjoying what they have earned. They might say that wealth is a reward for duty done, and that the faithful workman is entitled to sit down and enjoy the fruits of his labor.
If one of them draws any such inference he will be immediately corrected by the new philosophy. He will be told that wealth is a duty and a responsibility; that he holds it not for himself, but for others; and if he asks for whom, he will be told that he is only a trustee for those who did not obey the teachings of boyhood about industry, temperance, prudence, and frugality. He tried to take his own course and let others take theirs; he tried to do right and prosper and let others do ill and suffer if they preferred; but he finds, as a result of his course, that he has made himself responsible for those who took the other course, while they are not responsible for anybody, not even for themselves. This new kind of trustee also is not allowed to administer his trust for the benefit of the beneficiaries, according to his own judgment; that is done for him by the doctors of the new philosophy. His function is limited to producing and saving.
If a man, in the organization of labor, employs other men to assist in an industrial enterprise, it was formerly thought that the rights and duties of the parties were defined by the contract which they made with each other. The new doctrine is that the employer becomes responsible for the welfare of the employees in a number of respects. They do not each remain what they were before this contract, independent members of society, each pursuing happiness in his own way according to his own ideas of it. The employee is not held to any new responsibility for the welfare of the employer; the duties are all held to lie on the other side. The employer must assure the employed against the risks of his calling, and even against his own negligence; the employee is not held to assure himself, as a free man with all his own responsibilities, although the scheme may be so devised that the assurance is paid for out of his wages; he is released from responsibility for himself. The common law recognizes the only true and rational liability of employers, viz., that which is deducible from the responsibilities which the employer has assumed in the relation. The new doctrines which are preached and which have been embodied in the legislation of some countries, are not based on any rational responsibility of the employer but on the fact that the employee may sometimes find himself in a very hard case, either through his own negligence or through unavoidable mischances of life, and that there is nobody else who can be made to take care of him but his employer.
In the advance of the industrial organization it has come about that interests have been subdivided and rights have been created in the various interests. The most important of these divisions is that between a specific interest, like that of the mortgagees or bondholders, and a contingent interest, like that of the title-holder or the stock-holder. The tendency to separate these interests, and to define the rights corresponding to them, is rich in advantage to different classes in the community and in advantage to the industrial development. The specific interest in the gains of the enterprise is that of the landlord, mortgagee, bondholder, or employee; the contingent interest in the gains is that of the title-holder, stock-holder, tenant, or employer. The specific interest is always free from risk and excluded from control. The maintenance of this separation of interests is not possible unless there is the most firm enforcement of contracts. In some of the cases the difficulty is that the specific interest tries to get a share in the contingent gains, when it is found out that there are such. In other cases, the contingent gain not having been realized, those who own it try to encroach upon the specific or guaranteed interest. If it is possible for either to succeed, then a contract relation is transformed into a relation of “heads I win, tails you lose.” The responsibilities of the parties are made to vary from the engagements into which they have entered. The current attacks on landlords and creditors are, therefore, radically unjust, and the insecurity for the more refined relations and interests which arises from the weakening of the contract relation is injurious to the whole industrial organization.
In short, the policy which we are invited to accept is one in which every duty which a man accomplishes is made the basis, not for rights and rewards, but for new duties and subjection to new demands. Every duty which is neglected becomes a ground for new rights and claims. The well-to-do man is to do without things which his means might buy for himself in order that he may pay taxes to provide those same things in a public way for people who have not earned them. The man who by toil has tried to get the knowledge which alone enables men to judge, is not to have the deciding voice, but is to stand behind the man who has neglected to get knowledge while the latter gives the deciding voice, and to take or avert the consequences. All this is preached to us on the ground that it is public-spirited, unselfish, and altruistic. It is immoral to the very last degree and opposed to the simplest common sense. It cannot fail to avenge itself in social consequences of the most serious character.