Liberty Matters

Finding Social Darwinism in the Assault on Sumner’s Laissez Faire

When discussed at all by historians, William Graham Sumner's name is usually attached to the concept of social Darwinism. As Matt Zwolinski notes in his opening essay, this phrase is actually a poor descriptor of Sumner's beliefs and directly chafes with his highly developed criticisms of injustices that come about through unscrupulous state actors. It has nonetheless proven a difficult designation for Sumner, along with his English counterpart Herbert Spencer, to shake. We owe this situation in large part to the lasting influence of the progressive historian Richard Hofstadter, and particularly his pairing of the concept with another cause that Sumner actually did champion – laissez-faire economics. In this sense, Sumner's aversion to progressive meddling in the freedom of exchange, and particularly his arguments against state redistribution of resources, are said to foster a social rule of the "survival of the fittest." 
Although it is premised on an inaccurate depiction, this pairing seems to work intuitively. A devotee of economic nonintervention by the state might be assumed to allow Darwinian principles of natural selection to determine the social fates of those left behind by the market, resisting any impulse to act so that "nature" may take its course. This view is at best a gross oversimplification if not misrepresentation, yet it is also representative of a common reading of Sumner among historians. The inaccuracy of this is all the more troubling considering that Sumner endeavored at length to correct it in his own time.
As Sumner noted in an 1886 retort to socialist misuse of the term, "Laissez-faire is so far from meaning the unrestrained action of nature without any intelligent interference by man, that it really means the only rational application of human intelligence to the assistance of natural development."[34] To illustrate this nuance, he enlisted the metaphor of cultivating a garden. One approach would be for the gardener to decide in advance "what he wants nature to give" and then proceed "by the method of trial and failure to try to make her come up to his ideal." The second approach "abstains most carefully from meddling with [nature] until he has observed her lines of independent action, because he knows that if he interferes sooner he will spoil the clearness and distinctness of the information which she will give him."
The first approach is a manual for killing the garden through haphazardly executed methods that evince no awareness of the garden's nature beyond a desire to control its form. The second entails learning how to best assist its growth after observing its nature. Sumner's concept of laissez faire operated similarly, hence the non-Darwinian definition he offered: "Laissez-faire means: Do not meddle; wait and observe. Do not regulate; study. Do not give orders; be teachable. Do not enter upon any rash experiments; be patient until you see how it will work out."
The juxtaposition of this version of laissez faire against its post-Hofstadter caricature reveals how far the concept has drifted from its origins, but it is also only half of the story. The imprecision of the term "social Darwinism," as noted by Zwolinski, has in part enabled this problematic use to persist. I would add that another consideration must be included in the corrective. Historical critics of Sumner's laissez-faire principle, far from fighting back against an uncaring "social Darwinism" that left the poor and needy to the ravages of an unfettered market, were actually engaged in a socially Darwinian project of their own, albeit of state design.
The intellectual fight against Sumner's concept of laissez faire began in his own lifetime and persisted through the Keynesian ascendency of the Great Depression. It was also a fight that drew, in no small part, upon negative eugenics and other types of state social engineering, the entire premise of which enlisted Darwinian theory as a tool to identify, control, and eventually purge "undesirable" elements from human society.
Hofstadter, to his credit, recognized this collectivist strain of Darwinism in his work and contrasted it with the individualist iteration that he assigned to Sumner, as recently documented by the historian Thomas C. Leonard.[35] It has elicited comparatively little attention, though, in relation to the slur upon Sumner, Spencer, and other laissez-faire classical liberals. More so, with very few exceptions, historians have largely missed how intimately connected this collectivist social Darwinian case was to the intellectual effort to cast aside laissez-faire principles from economic thought.
Consider a 1936 reminiscence from Richard T. Ely, the leading progressive economist behind the founding of the American Economic Association. Writing of his own emergence from graduate studies in the 1880s, Ely placed himself in a struggle with "a group of older men [who] had almost a monopoly" on the economics profession. Their ranks included "Professor William Graham Sumner of Yale, David A. Wells, the amiable Perry of Williams College, and the belligerent Simon Newcomb of the Naval Observatory and of the Johns Hopkins University," as well as E.L. Godkin, the classical-liberal editor of the Nation magazine. As Ely continued, "Free trade and laissez faire were the principal features of their orthodoxy and orthodox was a great word in the early eighties in this country."[36] He described his task in the founding of the AEA as an explicit response to this line of thinking:
I would not want to deny them their meed of praise, but our new economic thought disturbed them and they considered us a menace to the welfare of the country. Generally speaking, they had taken over the English classical economics in a rather extreme form and this placed them with those English economists called by the Germans, the Epigones.
In its place he proposed to take the profession in the direction of a new "science" – one that enlisted the state as a great social corrective to the unfettered market. To this end, Ely adopted a much greater tolerance for protectionism than Sumner's position permitted. While Sumner saw tariffs as a font of state redistribution from the poor to the politically privileged, Ely and a number of his fellow progressives (Simon N. Patten in particular) perceived a tool for designing a national industrial policy. They extended similar principles to regulatory intervention, labor relations, and minimum or "living" wages, treating the state as a "scientific" tempering device to the competitive fluctuations of the free market. But above all, this "scientific" designer's retort to Sumner's laissez faire carried deep undertones of socially managing "desirable" elements of race and heredity.
The product might legitimately be called socially Darwinian in a more precise application of the term, but in relation to Sumner and, with him, Spencer, it also turned the intellectual case against intervention on its head. Ely, Patten, and a host of other progressive reformers like John R. Commons and Edward A. Ross explicitly deployed eugenic social design as a "corrective" to what they saw to be the failings of the laissez-faire principle advanced by the older generation of economic thinkers and typified by Sumner.
An appeal to the social survival of the fittest, tempered only by an extension of modest comforting charity, may be seen in this grating passage from Ely's 1903 book Studies in the Evolution of Industrial Society:[37]
[I]t must be admitted that there remains what has been termed the human rubbish heap of the competitive system. There are those who are not able to live in its strenuous atmosphere. The sad fact, however, is not that of competition, but the existence of these feeble persons. The sadness consists in the hard facts of life of which competition takes cognizance. If the weakest are favored and their reproduction encouraged, we must have social degeneration. The recognition of these hard facts, with suitable action taken with reference to them, reduces the amount of human pain for the present and the future by public and private charity. The socially rejected must be cared for and given as happy an existence as possible, provided only that we do not encourage the increase of those who belong to this sad human rubbish-heap.
Ely explicitly presented his argument in this book as an application of evolutionary theory to social conditions, fretting that "Philanthropy and science keep alive men who would otherwise perish." From this spring flowed the policies of social control that typified Ely's brand of anti-laissez-faire progressivism. He advocated immigration restrictions on "undesirable" persons, eugenic sterilization of the feeble, and even gave nods of approval to entry barriers upon the labor market. Thus minimum wages could be used to exclude less "productive" races from the labor force, and child labor laws could be used to discourage breeding among the lower classes by stripping these families of a source of income.
Other progressive critics of laissez faire enlisted similar lines of reasoning to espouse policies of hereditary design and social control. John R. Commons, in a 1907 essay, contended that tropical climates had made African-Americans "indolent and fickle." He continued with a chilling line of argument from this point: "Therefore, if such races are to adopt that industrious life which is a second nature to races of the temperate zones, it is only through some form of compulsion."[38]
Leonard and a handful of other historians have recently begun to explore these and other progressive attachments to eugenic thought, and its implications for the placement of social Darwinism in the realm of classical-liberal thought. I'd stress the point even further with regards to Sumner though, as derived from his steadfast defense of laissez faire.
One thinker who has largely escaped criticism on the points that are now starting to find acknowledgment in the works of Commons and Ely is John Maynard Keynes. This omission is curious as Keynes made explicit the tension between the older laissez-faire school and his own social applications of evolutionary-infused eugenic policies. Such positions, Keynes wrote in 1923, provoke distaste because they "modify the laisser-faire [sic] of Nature, and … bring the workings of a fundamental instinct under social control." He elaborated on this point three years later in his own famous essay, The End of Laissez-Faire, by calling upon governments to establish "a considered national policy" on population. Once enacted, he continued, a time would likely come "when the community as a whole must pay attention to the innate quality as well as to the mere numbers of its future members."[39]
One of the greatest ironies – and intellectual tragedies – of the social Darwinian slur upon Sumner is that it tends to treat eugenics, racial exclusion, immigration restrictions, and similar concepts as intellectual descendants of laissez faire. Leonard and a handful of other scholars have tacked this myth,[40] and Zwolinski's highlighting of Sumner's comparative enlightenment on several issues of policy – his harsh criticisms of state predation by powerful elites, his commitment to anti-imperialism – remind us further of how far off base the conventional historiography has gotten. Yet in probing this subject further, we find ample evidence that the charge against Sumner is not simply erroneous – it is an inversion of truth that assigns beliefs to Sumner that are actually consistent representations of the strongest critics of his long-championed cause, laissez faire. Clearly we still have much work to do.
[34.] Sumner, 1886, "Laissez-Faire," in On Liberty and Politics: The Essential Essays of William Graham Sumner, Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, pp. 227-233. Available online at: <>.
[35.] Thomas C. Leonard, "Origins of the Myth of Social Darwinism: The Ambiguous Legacy of Richard Hofstadter's Social Darwinism in American Thought," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 71 (2009) 37–51 <>.
[36.] Richard T. Ely, "The Founding and Early History of the American Economic Association," The American Economic Review, vol. 26, no. 1, Supplement, Papers and Proceedings of the Forty-eighth Annual Meeting of the American Economic Association (Mar., 1936), 141-50. <>.
[37.] Ely, Richard T. Studies in the Evolution of Industrial Society. New York: Macmillan, 1913, 163. <>.
[38.]   Commons, John R. "Racial Composition of the American People," The Chautauquan 39: 13. <>.
[39.] Keynes, J.M. "The End of Laissez-Faire," in Essays in Persuasion, New York: Harcourt-Brace, 1932, p. 292. <>.
[40.] "Mistaking Eugenics for Social Darwinism: Why Eugenics Is Missing from the History of American Economics," Thomas C. Leonard papers, Princeton University. <>.