Front Page Titles (by Subject) VII.: CONCERNING SOME OLD FOES UNDER NEW FACES. - What Social Classes Owe to Each Other
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VII.: CONCERNING SOME OLD FOES UNDER NEW FACES. - William Graham Sumner, What Social Classes Owe to Each Other 
What Social Classes Owe to Each Other, (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1911).
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CONCERNING SOME OLD FOES UNDER NEW FACES.
The history of the human race is one long story of attempts by certain persons and classes to obtain control of the power of the State, so as to win earthly gratifications at the expense of others. People constantly assume that there is something metaphysical and sentimental about government. At bottom there are two chief things with which government has to deal. They are, the property of men and the honor of women. These it has to defend against crime. The capital which, as we have seen, is the condition of all welfare on earth, the fortification of existence, and the means of growth, is an object of cupidity. Some want to get it without paying the price of industry and economy. In ancient times they made use of force. They organized bands of robbers. They plundered laborers and merchants. Chief of all, however, they found that means of robbery which consisted in gaining control of the civil organization—the State—and using its poetry and romance as a glamour under cover of which they made robbery lawful. They developed high-spun theories of nationality, patriotism, and loyalty. They took all the rank, glory, power, and prestige of the great civil organization, and they took all the rights. They threw on others the burdens and the duties. At one time, no doubt, feudalism was an organization which drew together again the fragments of a dissolved society; but when the lawyers had applied the Roman law to modern kings, and feudal nobles had been converted into an aristocracy of court nobles, the feudal nobility no longer served any purpose.
In modern times the great phenomenon has been the growth of the middle class out of the mediæval cities, the accumulation of wealth, and the encroachment of wealth, as a social power, on the ground formerly occupied by rank and birth. The middle class has been obliged to fight for its rights against the feudal class, and it has, during three or four centuries, gradually invented and established institutions to guarantee personal and property rights against the arbitrary will of kings and nobles.
In its turn wealth is now becoming a power in the State, and, like every other power, it is liable to abuse unless restrained by checks and guarantees. There is an insolence of wealth, as there is an insolence of rank. A plutocracy might be even far worse than an aristocracy. Aristocrats have always had their class vices and their class virtues. They have always been, as a class, chargeable with licentiousness and gambling. They have, however, as a class, despised lying and stealing. They have always pretended to maintain a standard of honor, although the definition and the code of honor have suffered many changes and shocking deterioration. The middle class has always abhorred gambling and licentiousness, but it has not always been strict about truth and pecuniary fidelity. That there is a code and standard of mercantile honor which is quite as pure and grand as any military code, is beyond question, but it has never yet been established and defined by long usage and the concurrent support of a large and influential society. The feudal code has, through centuries, bred a high type of men, and constituted a caste. The mercantile code has not yet done so, but the wealthy class has attempted to merge itself in or to imitate the feudal class.
The consequence is, that the wealth-power has been developed, while the moral and social sanctions by which that power ought to be controlled have not yet been developed. A plutocracy would be a civil organization in which the power resides in wealth, in which a man might have whatever he could buy, in which the rights, interests, and feelings of those who could not pay would be overridden.
There is a plain tendency of all civilized governments toward plutocracy. The power of wealth in the English House of Commons has steadily increased for fifty years. The history of the present French Republic has shown an extraordinary development of plutocratic spirit and measures. In the United States many plutocratic doctrines have a currency which is not granted them anywhere else; that is, a man’s right to have almost anything which he can pay for is more popularly recognized here than elsewhere. So far the most successful limitation on plutocracy has come from aristocracy, for the prestige of rank is still great wherever it exists. The social sanctions of aristocracy tell with great force on the plutocrats, more especially on their wives and daughters. It has already resulted that a class of wealthy men is growing up in regard to whom the old sarcasms of the novels and the stage about parvenus are entirely thrown away. They are men who have no superiors, by whatever standard one chooses to measure them. Such an interplay of social forces would, indeed, be a great and happy solution of a new social problem, if the aristocratic forces were strong enough for the magnitude of the task. If the feudal aristocracy, or its modern representative—which is, in reality, not at all feudal—could carry down into the new era and transmit to the new masters of society the grace, elegance, breeding, and culture of the past, society would certainly gain by that course of things, as compared with any such rupture between past and present as occurred in the French Revolution. The dogmatic radicals who assail “on principle” the inherited social notions and distinctions are not serving civilization. Society can do without patricians, but it cannot do without the patrician virtues.
In the United States the opponent of plutocracy is democracy. Nowhere else in the world has the power of wealth come to be discussed in its political aspects as it is here. Nowhere else does the question arise as it does here. I have given some reasons for this in former chapters. Nowhere in the world is the danger of a plutocracy as formidable as it is here. To it we oppose the power of numbers as it is presented by democracy. Democracy itself, however, is new and experimental. It has not yet existed long enough to find its appropriate forms. It has no prestige from antiquity such as aristocracy possesses. It has, indeed, none of the surroundings which appeal to the imagination. On the other hand, democracy is rooted in the physical, economic, and social circumstances of the United States. This country cannot be other than democratic for an indefinite period in the future. Its political processes will also be republican. The affection of the people for democracy makes them blind and uncritical in regard to it, and they are as fond of the political fallacies to which democracy lends itself as they are of its sound and correct interpretation, or fonder. Can democracy develop itself and at the same time curb plutocracy?
Already the question presents itself as one of life or death to democracy. Legislative and judicial scandals show us that the conflict is already opened, and that it is serious. The lobby is the army of the plutocracy. An elective judiciary is a device so much in the interest of plutocracy, that it must be regarded as a striking proof of the toughness of the judicial institution that it has resisted the corruption so much as it has. The caucus, convention, and committee lend themselves most readily to the purposes of interested speculators and jobbers. It is just such machinery as they might have invented if they had been trying to make political devices to serve their purpose, and their processes call in question nothing less than the possibility of free self-government under the forms of a democratic republic.
For now I come to the particular point which I desire to bring forward against all the denunciations and complaining about the power of chartered corporations and aggregated capital. If charters have been given which confer undue powers, who gave them? Our legislators did. Who elected these legislators? We did. If we are a free, self-governing people, we must understand that it costs vigilance and exertion to be self-governing. It costs far more vigilance and exertion to be so under the democratic form, where we have no aids from tradition or prestige, than under other forms. If we are a free, self-governing people, we can blame nobody but ourselves for our misfortunes. No one will come to help us out of them. It will do no good to heap law upon law, or to try by constitutional provisions simply to abstain from the use of powers which we find we always abuse. How can we get bad legislators to pass a law which shall hinder bad legislators from passing a bad law? That is what we are trying to do by many of our proposed remedies. The task before us, however, is one which calls for fresh reserves of moral force and political virtue from the very foundations of the social body. Surely it is not a new thing to us to learn that men are greedy and covetous, and that they will be selfish and tyrannical if they dare. The plutocrats are simply trying to do what the generals, nobles, and priests have done in the past—get the power of the State into their hands, so as to bend the rights of others to their own advantage; and what we need to do is to recognize the fact that we are face to face with the same old foes—the vices and passions of human nature. One of the oldest and most mischievous fallacies in this country has been the notion that we are better than other nations, and that Government has a smaller and easier task here than elsewhere. This fallacy has hindered us from recognizing our old foes as soon as we should have done. Then, again, these vices and passions take good care here to deck themselves out in the trappings of democratic watch-words and phrases, so that they are more often greeted with cheers than with opposition when they first appear. The plan of electing men to represent us who systematically surrender public to private interests, and then trying to cure the mischief by newspaper and platform declamation against capital and corporations, is an entire failure.
The new foes must be met, as the old ones were met—by institutions and guarantees. The problem of civil liberty is constantly renewed. Solved once, it re-appears in a new form. The old constitutional guarantees were all aimed against king and nobles. New ones must be invented to hold the power of wealth to that responsibility without which no power whatever is consistent with liberty. The judiciary has given the most satisfactory evidence that it is competent to the new duty which devolves upon it. The courts have proved, in every case in which they have been called upon, that there are remedies, that they are adequate, and that they can be brought to bear upon the cases. The chief needs seems to be more power of voluntary combination and co-operation among those who are aggrieved. Such co-operation is a constant necessity under free self-government; and when, in any community, men lose the power of voluntary co-operation in furtherance or defence of their own interests, they deserve to suffer, with no other remedy than newspaper denunciations and platform declamations. Of course, in such a state of things, political mountebanks come forward and propose fierce measures which can be paraded for political effect. Such measures would be hostile to all our institutions, would destroy capital, overthrow credit, and impair the most essential interests of society. On the side of political machinery there is no ground for hope, but only for fear. On the side of constitutional guarantees and the independent action of self-governing freemen there is every ground for hope.