Liberty Matters

On Overturning the Charges Levelled against Professor W. G. Sumner


Matt Zwolinski is both witty and correct to call William Graham Sumner "Liberty's Forgotten Man." Both Sumner's own considerable professional work as a sociologist, economist, and historian, and as an activist for free trade and the anti-imperialist movement, as well as the ideas which lie behind one of his greatest essays, "The Forgotten Man" (and interestly for the historical period, Sumner includes "Woman" as well), with its deep insights into the nature of class in America in the late 19th century, have fallen into a seemingly inextricable Orwellian memory hole. Thus, in a way, both the man and a number of very important classical-liberal ideas have been not only "forgotten" but also tabooed. It has been Zwolinki's task in this essay and others to rectify this situation and for that he should be congratulated.[51]
In his lead essay to this discussion Matt focuses on a number of charges of intellectual crimes which have brought against Sumner by modern intellectuals and scholars, namely, the criminal charge of "social Darwinism" (perhaps with "malice aforethought," aided and abetted by Herbert Spencer), of obstruction of justice for opposing state plans to redistribute wealth to the poor, and generally of being indifferent to, perhaps criminally negligent of, the fate of the weak, the poor, and the down and out. Many decades ago he was convicted at the bar of academia and sentenced to perpetual ostracism from civilized intellectual discourse. One is hard put to find recent scholarship which takes him or his ideas seriously, even by historians of ideas who are often exempt from the general taboo on unsavoury ideas simply because they are merely "chronicling" the past in order to better condemn it. [52]
I won't elaborate here on Matt's excellent resurrection of Sumner's ideas which he dealt with in his opening essay, but I do want to add to the list of things "forgotten" to show how deeply forgotten Sumner and his ideas have become and how difficult the overturning of his criminal conviction and the restoration of his reputation will be. Perhaps the other participants in this debate will take up some of these and elaborate on them further. I would like to list under Sumner's additional "crimes" his advocacy of hard money, his opposition to tariffs, his anti-imperialism, and his classical-liberal theory of class analysis and exploitation. The latter is particularly galling for American intellectuals as many believe that (a) class does not exist in America or (b) class analysis is a Marxist invention that classical liberals like Sumner have no business in dealing with. Let me begin with Sumner's activity as an economist and economic historian.
(1) It is not properly appreciated how much Sumner wrote on economic history and the important role he played in teaching free-market economic theory to the students at Yale University. His official position was professor of political and social science in Yale College, but he was free to lecture on economic topics as well, which he thought was quite an appropriate thing to do as the narrow compartmentalization of knowledge into such fields as sociology, political theory, politics, and economic history was just beginning. He wrote a sizable amount on the history of currency and banking in the United States, where he showed himself to be a strong advocate of hard (i.e., gold backed) currency, as for example in A History of American Currency (1884)[53] and the volume on the United States in A History of Banking in All the Leading Nations (1896).[54] He seemed to be well aware that "inflation" of the money supply in the form of expanded paper credit and money had a connection with bank failures and the business cycle, which plagued America throughout the 19th century, making him an "Austrian" theorist in the modern sense. He also taught introductory courses on economic theory to his students at Yale which showed wide reading in European economic thought (mainly French but also Friedrich von Wieser in a French translation, one of the pioneers of the marginalist school which emerged in the 1870s), as his class reading lists clearly show. He also listed in his course readings works by American followers of Frédéric Bastiat, such as as Amasa Walker.[55] All of this work unfortunately has been forgotten or conveniently ignored for decades since advocates of laissez-faire economic policies are also anathema, along with "social Darwinists," often for similar reasons.
(2) Sumner was also doubly damned even in his own time for being a strong advocate of free trade in an America, which from its founding, had been strongly protectionist, even Listian in its trade policies.[56] In the 1870s and 1880s free-trade groups had emerged in Chicago and New York which republished and adapted for an American audience works by the French free-trader Bastiat and works by the English-based Cobden Club, which championed Cobden-inspired free-trade literature at a time when tariff wars began to erupt again in Europe in the decades leading up to World War I. Sumner wrote free-trade material very much in the style of the great Bastiat, such as his criticism of protectionist "fallacies," or "sophisms," in his book Protectionism (1888).[57] Sumner's free-trade activities extended beyond the lecture halls of Yale as his talks and attendance at free-trade meetings clearly show. For example, at the annual dinner held by the New York Free Trade Club held at Delmonico's restaurant in 1885, Sumner gave one of the toasts where he declared, "Free Trade: The only true 'American System'" in direct opposition to over 100 years of American economic policy which had followed the protectionists and statist "American System" of Alexander Hamilton and Henry Clay, and codified by Friedrich List in 1841.
As the 19th century wore on, Sumner continued to alienate himself from the mainstream of intellectual opinion by taking up a cause deeply related to free trade in the Bastiat and Cobden sense of the term, namely, opposition to American imperialism. He vocally supported the Anti-Imperialist League, which was founded in June 1898 to oppose the war against Spain and included an impressive list of establishment politicians, academics, and authors such as Charles Francis Adams, Jr., Jane Addams, Edward Atkinson, Ambrose Bierce, Andrew Carnegie, Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), Grover Cleveland, John Dewey, Edwin Lawrence Godkin, Samuel Gompers, William Dean Howells, Henry James, William James, David Starr Jordan, Carl Schurz, and Oswald Garrison Villard. That support cemented his position as an outsider to the prevailing intellectual atmosphere. I will return to this topic and his classical-liberal theory of class and exploitation in another post.
[51.] I refer to a four-part series on Sumner which was published in in July-August 2013 which began this task of scholarly rehabilitation. See, Matt Zwolinski, "William Graham Sumner: Part 1 – Laissez-Faire and Social Darwinism" (July 15, 2013); "Part 2—The Rejection of Social Darwinism" (July 25, 2013); "Part 3 – The Forgotten Man" (July 29, 2013); "Part 4 – Charity, Liberty, and Social Justice" (August 5, 2013)
[52.] See for example, Dom Armetano's PhD thesis on Sumner, The Political Economy of William Graham Sumner: A Study in the History of Free-Enterprise Ideas (PhD, University of Connecticut, 1966); H.A. Scott Trask, "William Graham Sumner: Monetary Theorist." The Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics 8, No. 2 (Summer 2005): 35–54, and "William Graham Sumner: Against Democracy, Plutocracy, and Imperialism," The Journal of Libertarian Studies, Volume 18, no. 4 (Fall 2004), pp. 1–27; and Robert C. Bannister's introduction to On Liberty, Society, and Politics: The Essential Writings of William Graham Sumner, ed. Robert C. Bannister (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1992).
[53.] William Graham Sumner, A History of American Currency, with Chapters on the English Bank Restriction and Austrian Paper Money, to which is appended "The Bullion Report" (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1884). /titles/1653.
[54.] William Graham Sumner, A History of Banking in All the Leading Nations; comprising the United States; Great Britain; Germany; Austro-Hungary; France; Italy; Belgium; Spain; Switzerland; Portugal; Roumania; Russia; Holland; The Scandinavian Nations; Canada; China; Japan; compiled by thirteen authors. Edited by the editor of the Journal of Commerce and Commercial Bulletin. In Four Volumes. (New York: The Journal of Commerce and Commercial Bulletin, 1896). Vol. 1: A History of Banking in the United States. /titles/2237.
[55.] In his reading list of books for his students, which he included in his textbook Problems in Political Economy (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1885), he included works by Michel Chevalier, John Elliott Cairnes, the Dictionnaire de l'économie politique (1852–53), Jevons, Leroy-Beaulieu, Macleod, Marshall, J.S. Mill, Sidgwick, Spencer, and Walker, pp. vii-x. 
[56.] Friedrich List wrote The National System of Political Economy in 1841 but similar ideas had taken deep root in the United States under the influence of Alexander Hamilton. See Friedrich List, The National System of Political Economy by Friedrich List, trans. Sampson S. Lloyd, with an Introduction by J. Shield Nicholson (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1909). /titles/315.
[57.] William Graham Sumner, Protectionism: the -ism which Teaches that Waste Makes Wealth (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1888). /titles/1655.