Liberty Matters

When Libertarianism meets Sociology: William Graham Sumner

Sumner is a stranger to us today. With the exception of a few scholars of the history of ideas, no one reads him anymore. But many of them think he was a social Darwinist.
Yet sociology of a liberal persuasion has been important in the history of ideas. Not only did it propagate a resolutely "scientific" message concerning social phenomena, it also led frequently to liberal thought.  Hence the need felt by many authors to develop a vision of the world that would be consistent with the events and the issues of a time marked by singular upheaval.
For liberals, the central feature of their theoretical approach is its faith in human endeavor and in individual initiative. The new world that was taking shape before their eyes sparked mixed feelings, characterized both by bursts of enthusiasm and by gnawing concerns. They were not given to wild theorizing: they cast their ideas in context, they offered answers to the crises that often emerge in the world of science.  Here is the necessity to define a scientific approach to social phenomena.
Sumner was not only the first American sociologist, but he was probably the first libertarian sociologist.  The idea of liberty, as Matt Zwolinski reminds us in his very interesting essay, is at the center of his work.  Sumner does not believe in the idea of the struggle for life or class struggle.  According to him, most sociologists are socialists and "they are frightened of liberty."[58]  In a key passage in his essay "Sociology" (1881) he notes that the socialists confuse two different kinds of struggle and do not understand how liberty can ameliorate both of them:
We have noticed that the relations involved in the struggle for existence are twofold. There is first the struggle of individuals to win the means of subsistence from nature, and secondly there is the competition of man with man in the effort to win a limited supply. The radical error of the socialists and sentimentalists is that they never distinguish these two relations from each other. They bring forward complaints which are really to be made, if at all, against the author of the universe for the hardships which man has to endure in his struggle with nature. The complaints are addressed, however, to society; that is, to other men under the same hardships. The only social element, however, is the competition of life, and when society is blamed for the ills which belong to the human lot, it is only burdening those who have successfully contended with those ills with the further task of conquering the same ills over again for somebody else. Hence liberty perishes in all socialistic schemes, and the tendency of such schemes is to the deterioration of society by burdening the good members and relieving the bad ones.[59]
Taking the opposite point of view, Sumner argued a decade before the French sociologist Émile Durkheim,[60] that society or the modern industrial system is an example of  "great social co-operation." As put it in his essay "On the reasons why Man is not altogether a Brute":
The modern industrial system is a great social co-operation. It is automatic and instinctive in its operation. The adjustments of the organs take place naturally. The parties are held together by impersonal force—supply and demand. They may never see each other; they may be separated by half the circumference of the globe. Their co-operation in the social effort is combined and distributed again by financial machinery, and the rights and interests are measured and satisfied without any special treaty or convention at all. All this goes on so smoothly and naturally that we forget to notice it. We think that it costs nothing—does itself, as it were. The truth is, that this great co-operative effort is one of the great products of civilization—one of its costliest products and highest refinements, because here, more than anywhere else, intelligence comes in, but intelligence so clear and correct that it does not need expression.[61]
The vision of society that dominated Sumner's thinking was the product of a culture shaped by the natural sciences. His sociology is both an empirical and a theoretical discipline.  Sumner's approach reflects not only a research strategy, but also a lively interest in observing empirical facts, something we hardly find with Auguste Comte. But Sumner shares with Comte the idea that sociology must become a science.  He writes: 
The need for a science of life in society is urgent, and it is increasing every year.  It is a fact which is generally overlooked that the great advance in the sciences and the arts which has taken place during the last century is producing social consequences and giving rise to social problems.[62]
In this way, Sumner is able to discern sociological laws that are not linear but are, to the contrary, marked by discontinuities of all kinds.
The writings of Herbert Spencer certainly had a considerable influence on him.  Sumner, who played a decisive role in disseminating the ideas of Spencer in the United States, laid the markers for an approach to economics that suited the scientific dogma of the time. While he admired Spencer's evolutionism we must insist that he was far from being a slavish disciple.
Influenced by "scientism" or "positivism", Sumner was particularly productive in the late 19th century; it was during this period that his work took on its definitive shape. In 1906, Sumner published his most important book, Folways, dealing with morality in relation to liberty. He sets out to explain the roots of the idea of liberty and social relationships. In this way they made a fundamental contribution to the development of sociology – a point often overlooked – they also participated in the development of the social sciences of the time. The turn of the century saw the overthrow of what had been considered certainties. For Sumner, morality had to be recast, and the relationship between man and society re-examined according to the criteria of the emerging social sciences. The pace of time was accelerating and chaos was taking hold. Liberal thinkers, like Sumner, took note of this and they too sought to bring to light previously unsuspected human laws. They scrutinized liberty, they identified its origins, and they did battle against the obstacles that, as they saw it, were holding back its progress.
But curiously, Sumner never quotes the other major figures of sociology of his time.  He does not say a word about Émile Durkheim, Gabriel Tarde, Georg Simmel  or Vilfredo Pareto.  The reason why has both an academic and an ideological and political aspect which I cannot go into in this initial post but will keep for a later time.
[58.] See William Graham Sumner, On Liberty, Society, and Politics.  The Essential Essays,  Ind., Liberty Fund, 1992.  Karl Marx might be a good example.  Even today many sociologists (like Pierre Bourdieu) could be considered socialists.  They do not want to explain the social world but they try to change it.
[59.] William Graham Sumner, "Sociology" (1881) in War and Other Essays, ed. Albert Galloway Keller (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1919). </titles/345#Sumner_0255_199>.
[60.] See Émile Durkheim, De la division du travail social, Paris, Félix Alcan, 1893.
[61.] William Graham Sumner, What Social Classes Owe to Each Other, (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1911). </titles/346#Sumner_0317_54>.
[62.] William Graham Sumner, The Forgotten Man and other essays, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1876, p. 401. Also "The Science of Sociology" in William Graham Sumner, The Forgotten Man and Other Essays, ed. Albert Galloway Keller (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1918). </titles/2396#Sumner_1225_561>.