Liberty Matters

William Graham Sumner as Classical-Liberal Class Theorist

My opening essay touched on Sumner's thoughts on "plutocracy" and "jobbery." Here, I want to expand on these themes, and show how they relate to Sumner's larger classical-liberal theories of class, liberty, and exploitation.
The claim that William Graham Sumner can properly be described as a "class theorist" will no doubt come as a surprise to many. Class theory in social analysis is almost always associated with Marxist thought, and most especially with Marx's claim that the bourgeoisie exploits the proletariat by means of the former's monopolistic control of the means of production.[84]
But as recent scholars such as David Hart, Gary Chartier, Ross Kenyon, and Roderick Long have recently documented, there is a long and fascinating tradition of classical-liberal class analysis that precedes and rivals the Marxist one.[85] According to this alternative tradition, social classes are to be distinguished in terms of access or lack of access to state power, and it is state power (rather than access to capital as such) that gives rise to the phenomenon of exploitation.
To see how Sumner fits into this tradition, we need to start with his understanding of liberty. In his essay "The Forgotten Man," Sumner defined civil liberty as the state in which each individual is guaranteed the exclusive employment of his own powers for his own welfare. According to Sumner,
The institutions of civil liberty leave each man to run his career in life in his own way, only guaranteeing to him that whatever he does in the way of industry, economy, prudence, sound judgment, etc., shall redound to his own welfare and shall not be diverted to some one else's benefit. Of course it is a necessary corollary that each man shall also bear the penalty of his own vices and his own mistakes. If I want to be free from any other man's dictation, I must understand that I can have no other man under my control.[86]
For Sumner, civil liberty was a goal to be aspired to, but not a reality that most human beings were able to enjoy.
All history is only one long story to this effect: men have struggled for power over their fellow-men in order that they might win the joys of earth at the expense of others and might shift the burdens of life from their own shoulders upon those of others.[87]
Like Marx, Sumner saw exploitation as a constant throughout history, with one group of individuals living off the labor of others, and only the identity of the respective groups and the particular form of exploitation varying over time.[88] Slavery, feudalism, militarism, and aristocracy were all for Sumner just different expressions of the same basic pattern: one group of people labors, and another group of people lives parasitically off the fruit of their labor.
Of course, a person can only live off the fruits of others' labor in one of two ways: by consent or by force. Parents consent to support their children, and neighbors, friends, and communities will sometimes consent to support individuals who are suffering ill-fortune. But living off others' labor in that way is generally only a temporary phenomenon and is moreover dependent upon the special bonds of close relationship. To live off the labor of others as a permanent matter is generally only possible through the exercise of coercion. And the key insight of Sumner and other classical-liberal class theorists was that it was the coercive institutions of the state in particular that provided the surest and most attractive opportunity for one class to exploit another.
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.[89]
In his own time, Sumner saw the most dangerous form of exploitation as "plutocracy," or what we might now call "corporatism," "crony capitalism," or "corporate welfare." Like many on the political left, Sumner saw a great danger in the concentration of wealth in the hands of great industrialists. But what was problematic for Sumner was not the wealth itself but rather how those industrialists chose to use it – not economically, by investing it in capital or in consumption goods, but politically.
[I]nstead of employing laborers, he enlists lobbyists. Instead of applying capital to land, he operates upon the market by legislation, by artificial monopoly, by legislative privileges; he creates jobs, and erects combinations, which are half political and half industrial; he practises upon the industrial vices, makes an engine of venality, expends his ingenuity, not on processes of production, but on "knowledge of men," and on the tactics of the lobby. The modem industrial system gives him a magnificent field, one far more profitable, very often, than that of legitimate industry.[90]
A capitalist invests in capital so that he can produce goods and services that others value highly enough to enable him to earn a living from what they choose to give him voluntarily. A plutocrat invests in state power so that he can live off the produce of others' labor that is taken from them coercively by taxation. In seeking what he regards as the most effective means to the satisfaction of his self-interest, the plutocrat acts rationally – he responds to the incentives of the political system he inhabits. But in this sort of system the rational pursuit of self-interest is socially destructive. As more capitalists come to see that investing in politics is the easiest way to wealth, more and more resources are channeled away from positive-sum investment and toward a zero-sum competition over political "rents." Economic growth and democratic institutions are thereby put in peril. Even the rise of imperialism, Sumner thought, was directly related to the problem of plutocracy.[91]
What could be done about the threat of plutocracy? How might humanity bring an end to the cycle of the exploitation of man by man? In one sense, the solution is simple. If exploitation is made possible by some people using political power for their own private benefit, then the solution is to minimize the scope of political power.
[T]he wise policy in regard to it is to minimize to the utmost the relations of the state to industry. As long as there are such relations, every industrial interest is forced more or less to employ plutocratic methods. The corruption is greater, perhaps, on those who exercise them than on the objects of them. Laissez-faire, instead of being what it appears to be in most of the current discussions, cuts to the very bottom of the morals, the politics, and the political economy of the most important public questions of our time.[92]
Of course, even if this solution would work in theory, minimizing the relations of state to industry is easier said than done. After all, the same incentives that lead individuals to take advantage of existing state power to serve their own personal interests will also lead them to defend that power, or to re-establish it if, by some miracle, it is abolished.
Sumner recognized that the task of fighting effectively against vested interests would not be easy, but would instead call for "fresh reserves of moral force and political virtue."[93] Effective political institutions were part of the story. Sumner, anticipating ideas that would later be developed in much greater detail by James Buchanan, argued that constitutional constraints were necessary to prevent legislators from using their power for private rather than public good. Day-to-day politics – electing this or that person or passing this or that bill – would not do. The rules of the political game had to be changed.
Sumner saw that institutions by themselves are not enough to guarantee a state of civil liberty. A condition of freedom can only be secured by a people who are themselves morally committed to freedom. This requires the development of a certain character, at least on the part of a substantial minority of the people, and the "voluntary cooperation and combination" of those committed to liberty.
In 1883, when he wrote this analysis in What Social Classes Owe to Each Other, Sumner thought there was "every ground for hope" that this movement could be successful. By the end of his life, Sumner was much less confident, having become convinced that the 19th-century era of peace and prosperity was a brief historical exception that was coming to an end, and that the 20th century would be "as full as war" as the 18th.[94] So profound was Sumner's despair that he suffered an emotional collapse in 1890 that required him to take his first academic leave. In his despair at the prospects for liberty in the 20th century, Sumner joined Herbert Spencer and Gustave de Molinari, who suffered similar personal crises over their similarly grim predictions.
[84.] Zwolinski, Matt and Wertheimer, Alan, "Exploitation", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>. See the section in "1.2 Marx's Theory of Exploitation" <>
[85.] David Hart, Gary Chartier, Ross Kenyon, and Roderick Long, eds., Social Class and State Power: Exploring an Alternative Radical Tradition (London: Palgrave, 2018).
[86.] Sumner, "The Forgotten Man," in Albert Galloway Keller, ed., The Forgotten Man and Other Essays (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1918). </titles/2396#Sumner_1225_701>. Sumner's thoughts on civil liberty are further developed in a series of essays written between 1887 and 1889, and later collected in his Earth-hunger and Other Essays (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1913).
[87.] Sumner, "The Forgotten Man."
[88.] "If there are groups of people who have a certain claim to other people's labor and self-denial, and if there are other people whose labor and self-denial are liable to be claimed by the first groups, then there certainly are 'classes,' and classes of the oldest and most vicious type." Sumner, What Social Classes Owe to Each Other (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1911), I.: ON A NEW PHILOSPHY: THAT POVERTY IS THE BEST POLICY, </titles/346#Sumner_0317_14>.
[89.] Sumnder, VII.: CONCERNING SOME OLD FOES UNDER NEW FACES, in What Social Classes Owe to Each Other, (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1911). </titles/346#Sumner_0317_84>.
[90.] Sumner, "The Conflict of Democracy and Plutocracy," in Earth-hunger and Other Essays.
[91.] "The great foe of democracy now and in the near future is plutocracy. Every year that passes brings out this antagonism more distinctly. It is to be the social war of the twentieth century. In that war militarism, expansion and imperialism will all favor plutocracy. In the first place, war and expansion will favor jobbery, both in the dependencies and at home. In the second place, they will take away the attention of the people from what the plutocrats are doing. In the third place, they will cause large expenditures of the people's money, the return for which will not go into the treasury, but into the hands of a few schemers." Sumner, "The Conquest of the United States by Spain" in William Graham Sumner, War and Other Essays, ed. Albert Galloway Keller (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1919). .
[92.]Sumner, "The Conflict of Democracy and Plutocracy," in Earth-hunger and Other Essays , p. 300.
[93.] VII.: CONCERNING SOME OLD FOES UNDER NEW FACES. in William Graham Sumner, What Social Classes Owe to Each Other, (1911). </titles/346#Sumner_0317_91>.
[94.] Cited in Robert C. Bannister, Social Darwinism: Science and Myth in Anglo-American Social Thought (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1979), 102, 105. Also online: Sumner, "The Bequests of the Nineteenth Century to the Twentieth" (c. 1900) </pages/sumner-bequests>.