Front Page Titles (by Subject) THE NEW SOCIAL ISSUE - The Challenge of Facts and other Essays
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THE NEW SOCIAL ISSUE - 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 NEW SOCIAL ISSUE
THE NEW SOCIAL ISSUE
The effect of the great improvements in the arts during the last century is to produce a social and economic order which is controlled by tremendous forces, and which comprehends the whole human race; which is automatic in the mode of its activity; which is delicate and refined in its susceptibility to the influence of interferences. It is therefore at once too vast in its magnitude and scope for us to comprehend it, and too delicate in its operation for us to follow out and master its details.
Under such circumstances the conservative position in social discussion is the only sound position. We do not need to resist all change or discussion — that is not conservatism. We may, however, be sure that the only possible good for society must come of evolution not of revolution. We have a right to condemn, and to refuse our attention to flippant and ignorant criticisms or propositions of reform; we can rule out at once all plans to reconstruct society, on anybody's system, from the bottom up. We may refuse to act to-day under the motive of redressing some wrong done, ignorantly perhaps, one or two or more centuries ago; or under the motive of bringing in a golden age which we think men can attain to, one or two or more centuries in the future. We may refuse to listen to any propositions which are put forward with menaces and may demand that all who avail themselves of the right of free discussion shall remain upon the field of discussion and refrain from all acts until they have duly and fairly convinced the reason and conscience of the community. We may demand that no strain shall be put on any of our institutions, such as majority rule, by a rash determination to override dissent and remonstrance and to realize something for which there has been collected a hasty majority, animated by heterogeneous motives and purposes.
The institutions which we possess have cost something. Few people seem to know how much — it is one of the great defects in our education that we are not in a position to teach the history of civilization in such a way as to train even educated men to know the cost at which everything which to-day separates us from the brutes has been bought by the generations which have preceded us. As time goes on we can win more, but we shall win it only in the same way, that is, by slow and painful toil and sacrifice, not by adopting some prophet's scheme of the universe; therefore we have a right to ask that all social propositions which demand our attention shall be practical in the best sense, that is, that they shall aim to go forward in the limits and on the lines of sound development out of the past, and that none of our interests shall be put in jeopardy on the chance that Comte, or Spencer, or George, or anybody else has solved the world-problem aright. If anybody has a grievance against the social order, it is, on the simplest principles of common sense, the right of busy men whose attention he demands that he shall set forth in the sharpest and precisest manner what it is; any allegation of injustice which is vague is, by its own tenor, undeserving of attention.
Finally, we each have a right to have our liberty respected in such form as we have inherited it under the laws and institutions of our country. The fashion of the day is to sneer at this demand and to propose to make short work of it so soon as enough power shall have been collected to carry out the projects of certain social sects. Let us, however, give a moment's calm attention to it; the point is worth it, for here is where the tendencies now at work in society are to meet in collision. I do not mean by liberty any power of self-determination which all should allow to each or which each may demand of God, or nature, or society; I mean by it the aggregate of rights, privileges, and prerogatives which the laws and institutions of this country secure to each one of us to-day as conditions under which he may fight out the struggle for existence and the competition of life in this society. I call this liberty a thing which we have a “right” to demand, because, as a fact, the laws give us that right now; when I speak of rights and liberty, therefore, I wish to be understood as standing upon the law of the land and not on any platform of metaphysical or ethical deduction.
Such being the notion of liberty, it is plain that it stands on the line where right and might meet; where war passes over into peace, the guarantees of rights under law taking the place of the domination of might under lawlessness, and the limitation of rights by other rights taking the place of the limitation of powers by other powers. Many of the proposed changes in society aim to alter the demarcation of rights, and they aim to do this, not for a fuller realization of peace, order, liberty, and security, by a nicer adjustment of rights, but they avowedly aim to do it in the interest of certain groups and classes of persons. At this point, therefore, parties must be formed and issues must be joined. On one side is liberty under law, rights and interests being adjusted by the struggle of the parties under the natural laws of the social and industrial order and within barriers set by impersonal and “equal” legislation; on the other, state regulation, consisting of legislation planned to warp rights and interests in favor of selected groups under some a priori and arbitrary notion of justice, and administered by persons who, by the fundamental principle of the system, must assume to be competent to decide what ought to be done with us all and who must at the same time themselves be above the most fundamental weaknesses of human nature. There is room for a vast range and variety of opinion and sentiment on either side of this issue, but it is the issue which is upon us and on which every man must take sides.
One of the world-improvers said: “We must know how to do violence to mankind in general, in order to make them happy.” He naïvely expressed the sentiment which animates the whole school of opinion to which he belonged, from its extremest right wing to its extremest left wing. They must of course know just what men need to render them happy and they must be fearless in doing violence, that is, in trampling on liberty and causing misery, in order to enforce happiness.
If now we look to see who are to be the victims of the proposed re-adjustment of society, it is plain that they are men who, at this moment, hold the world of trade, industry, finance, transportation, law, and politics in their hands; and they hold it, not because they inherited it or because they belong to any privileged class, but they have obtained control of it by natural selection and because they have made it. Is it likely that they will be intimidated? Are they men to be coerced by clamor, or terrorism, or denunciation, or threats? So far there has scarcely even been discussion except on one side, and the disputants on that side are beginning already to count the battle won. It takes a long time for men who are absorbed in practical life to find out what the literary men are, for the time being, interested in, and still longer for them to make up their minds that talk is to come to anything; that point has not yet been reached, even by the educated community, in regard to the issue which I have described. When it is reached we shall see whether the people of the United States have lost their political sense or not.
It is impossible to look with any complacency on the probability that this issue is to be raised and fought out. No doubt the new power of mankind in these last two or three centuries to reflect on the phenomena and experiences of life has been and is rich in advantage for the race; it has taken the place of an instinctive living under the traditional and simple acquiescence in it, and has developed the reason and conscience of all; but it is at present a sort of disease. A society which brings all its inheritance of thought and faith into question at once, and before it has prepared an adequate apparatus for dealing with the questions and problems which it raises, may fall into chaos. And it is that issue in particular — one which shows that the people are not firm in their conception of liberty and are not ready and hard-headed in their judgment of social fads and whims—which brings with it the greatest jeopardy for the essential welfare of society.
Constitutional liberty, so far as we have been able to realize it, stands just now as a happy phase of civil institutions which we have been able to realize for a moment in the interval between the downfall of aristocracy and the rise of democracy; for there can be no doubt that the epidemic of socialism is only the turning of all social powers in obeisance and flattery toward the new and rising power. We are passing through a transition over to a new illustration of the fact that the thing which forever rules the world is not what is true or what is right, even relatively, but only what is strong. The main question which remains to be solved is whether the elements of strength in the new order are distributed as many now believe; whether democracy is a stable order at all or whether it will at once fall a prey to plutocracy. So surely as democracy yields to socialism, socialism will prove a middle stage toward plutocracy.