Liberty Matters

William Graham Sumner and the Eclipse of Classical-Liberal Evolutionary Theory


Like many intellectuals of his era, William Graham Sumner was a classical liberal who favored laissez faire and limited government. Still, these intellectuals faced opposition, and classical liberalism was a controversial position. For example, Sumner's biography at the website of the American Sociological Association (ASA) notes that the president of Yale College objected to Sumner's use of Herbert Spencer's text in a class and Sumner was forced to drop the book.[24] Later, Sumner came out strongly against the Spanish-American war, which was a popular war at the time.[25]
Sumner has paid dearly for his defense of laissez faire. He was a former president of the ASA and author of a seminal text of early American sociology, but Sumner is now forgotten by all except for intellectual historians. Even worse, when he is mentioned, it is an adherent of social Darwinism, a discredited ideology. Thus, we should welcome Matt Zwolinski's essay, which delves into an important, but now forgotten, figure of American social thought.
Zwolinski's essay examines Sumner's arguments against the welfare state and tries to save him from critics who call him a social Darwinist. The essay raises a number of points that bear repeating and reinforcing. First, social Darwinism is now employed as a vague intellectual slur. On this point, Zwolinski correctly notes that the term is rarely defined and broadly overused. Second, Zwolinski points out that critics conflate two things: criticism of the welfare state and the belief that poor people are inferior. This is an important distinction because classical-liberal social thought is not anti-poor. Rather, most classical liberals oppose class-based social privileges, and they tend to think that the poor are helped by the market economy because it generates economic growth. Third, Zwolinski counters Sumner's critics who think that evolutionary claims imply normative claims. Merely saying that a social institution is "fit" is not an ethical evaluation, any more than saying an organism that survives is ethically superior to others.
Zwolinski's defense of Sumner is commendable. It is very common to find modern intellectual historians who blithely dismiss thinkers like Sumner. The charge of Darwinism is not unlike the modern accusation of "neoliberalism," another tag that is used to dismiss argument with vague and threatening terms. Zwolinski is also to be commended for recovering Sumner's critique of redistribution: such a policy has unintended consequences and moral-hazard problems.
In this response I'd like to delve into a few issues raised by Zwolinski's essay. First, I want to explore in more detail the sort of social thought that thinkers like William Graham Sumner and Herbert Spencer were developing in the late 19th century. Second, I want to briefly discuss the landscape of sociology at the time to indicate the forces that were eroding the appeal of classical liberalism in intellectual life.
Evolutionary Social Science Born
Sumner was most active in the late 1800s and early 1900s. His major work, Folkways, was published in 1907 and reflects its era in two important ways. First, it presents society as a vast, decentralized structure. Contrary to the Hobbesian view, Sumner does not see society as ordered by a sovereign. Nor does he adopt the Marxian approach that puts the bourgeoisie at the center of the system. He sees society as shaped by the forces of selection and adaptation.[26]  One of the innovative arguments of Folkways is that state policies will only survive if they are compatible with local community norms.[27] Policies incompatible with local norms do not survive. Of all Sumner's insights, it is this that survives in modern sociology because it explains how bureaucratic agencies are shaped by the larger society.
The focus on society as an evolved order is consistent with Spencer's and F. A. Hayek's work. Together, these authors were developing the idea that states can't arbitrarily intervene in society and that some sort of evolutionary process defines the social world. The expression is positivist, but the sentiment is Burkean. Thus, in the early 1900s, sociology and economics were perched on a same ledge. Born of Enlightenment discourse on the benefits of trade and viewing the market, and society more generally, as an ordered, but organic system, the American social sciences were ready to grow into something akin to ecology, a science emphasizing a holistic approach to communities.
Evolutionary Social Science Denied
As many readers know, the social science outlined by Sumner and Spencer soon fell away. Now, both remain obscure in academic sociology. Talcott Parsons, the titan of mid-20th-century sociology, famously started one of his books with: "Who now reads Spencer?"[28] Parsons's rhetorical question resonated with sociologists because it cleverly alluded to the rejection of utilitarianism and evolutionary thinking in the discipline.
The reasons for the demise of Sumner and Spencer in sociology are complex, and it would not be possible to fully explore them here. However, one might consult recent scholarship on the history of American social science for clues. Consider The Scholar Denied, Aldon Morris's study of the life and intellectual legacy of W.E.B. DuBois. In recounting key moments from DuBois's life, Morris describes how DuBois responded to Spencer's sociology. At an early meeting of sociological researchers, DuBois heard papers presented on Spencer's theory and he found many problems. The main one was that the theory was too abstract, not grounded in everyday life, and not suited for social change. This was a fatal flaw because sociology for DuBois and others should be used to study race relations and promote racial equality.[29]
DuBois's response to Spencer and other evolutionists of the day suggests a story of why evolutionary social science was rejected. Most evolutionists defended laissez faire, as Spencer, Sumner, and many others did. By temperament, many progressive intellectuals could not stomach a theory associated with pro-market intellectuals. Furthermore, many intellectuals of the day did adopt views alleging racial differences, which DuBois and others rejected.
But second, evolutionary social theory, as developed by this generation, did not offer any systematic standpoint for critiquing nonstate institutions. To fully understand this point, consider how evolutionary theory might have aligned with DuBois's ethical and positive concerns. For DuBois, the central problem in society is racial division. He famously wrote that the problem that the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line.[30] His social science was designed to measure and quantify black communities in an effort to undermine the narrative of black inferiority. The classical-liberal evolutionist, like Sumner, can only meet DuBois halfway at best. On some key issues, DuBois and Sumner were in complete agreement. They were anti-imperialists and anti-colonialists. Maybe Sumner and DuBois might have agreed that states can be co-opted by racially motivated interests. There is little in DuBois's work to suggest that he considered the public-choice issues raised by Sumner, but as a socialist DuBois might have appreciated how private interests could subvert public policy.
However, major differences emerge quickly. DuBois would have argued that states should intervene to undermine the color line. Also, he would have been a strong critic of private institutions that promoted black inferiority, like the media, which in his view demonized blacks.[31] In contrast, an evolutionist might be tempted to defend racist private institutions or to think that they merited relatively little attention.
To summarize, classical-liberal evolutionary theory is often viewed as a theory well-suited for the critique of states but not of private institutions. What DuBois and other progressive sociologists seek is a way to analyze and mitigate social inequalities. Even setting aside their ethical opposition to markets (e.g., DuBois began his career as a Marxist and ended his life an unrepentant Stalinist), it is hard to see how Sumner's theory would be broad or flexible enough to satisfy the needs of an activist social science.
This is not to say that evolutionist thinking is absent from academic sociology -- far from it. Urban sociologists consistently describe urban communities as decentralized but functional communities.[32] Amos Hawley formalized this with his theory of human ecology.[33] Later, social network researchers began to measure communities as decentralized webs of interaction, which would have brought a smile to Hayek's face. Still, these ideas are not considered core elements of sociological thinking. Rather, they appear in scholarship on specific topics such as urban studies or personal interactions.
Matt Zwolinski has done a service by excavating Sumner's thought and rescuing it from the lazy charge of social Darwinism. Sumner is revealed to be an interesting proto-public-choice theorist. He has also helped the reader better understand that criticizing specific programs and identifying the incentives built into them is not the same as possessing prejudice against those who are less economically fortunate. Still, even if we appreciate Sumner in this light, we can ask why classical-liberal social science and evolutionary social science in general retreated from the spotlight of American intellectual life. Part of the answer lies in the dispute over the morality of markets, and part lies in the limited ability of evolutionary theory to provide intellectual resources for activist scholars.
[25.] "The Conquest of the United States by Spain" (1898) in William Graham Sumner, War and Other Essays, ed. Albert Galloway Keller (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1919). </titles/345#lf0255_label_369>. Also available as a stand alone essay: The Best of the OLL No. 11: William Graham Sumner, "The Conquest of the United States by Spain" (1898) (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 2013). </titles/2485>.
[26.] For an extended discussion of Sumner's work as an example of evolutionary social science that focuses on decentralized order, see Ellen Frankel Paul, "Liberalism, Unintended Orders and Evolutionism." Political Studies (1988) 36: 251-72.
[27.] For example, Sumner says that laws must emerge from the mores of society. "Acts of legislation come out from mores." He also states that "Legislation, however, has to seek the standing on the existing mores, and it soon becomes apparent that legislation, to be strong, must be consistent with the mores." William Graham Sumner, Folkways: A Study of the Sociological Importance of Usages, Manners, Customs, Mores, and Morals (Boston: Ginn & Company, 1907), 55.
[28.] Talcott Parsons, The Structure of Social Action (New York: Free Press, 1983 [1937]), 3
[29.] Aldon Morris, The Scholar Denied: W.E.B. DuBois and the Birth of Modern Sociology. (Oakland: University of California Press. 2015), 25.
[30.] Peter Fryer, Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain (London: Pluto Press, 1984), 285.
[31.] W.E.B. DuBois, "Black Reconstruction and the Racial Wage," in Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings, ed. Charles Lemert (Philadelphia: Westview Press, 2010), 242-45. DuBois noted that in the South that "The newspapers specialized on news that flattered poor whites and almost utterly ignored the Negro except in crime and ridicule." (244)
[32.] E.g., Gerald Suttles, The Social Order of the Slum: Ethnicity and Territory in the Inner City (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968).
[33.] Amos Hawley, Human Ecology: A Theoretical Essay (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986).