Sumner on the industrial system as an example of social co-operation (c. 1900)

William Graham Sumner

The American sociologist William Graham Sumner (1840-1910) argued that the accumulation of capital by peaceful productive activity required the cooperation of millions of people across the globe and resulted in mankind rising above the level of “the brute”:

The modern industrial system is a great (example of) 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 …

This essay needs to be be seen in the context of Sumner’s ongoing intellectual battle against socialist critics of the free market system which he waged for nearly 40 years. In it he defends the accumulation of capital which he correctly believed made it possible for mankind to rise out of the poverty of “the brute” and thus create a “civilisation” in which men and women could devote themselves to more than finding enough to eat and avoiding predators (both animal and human). Part of the “brutish” stage which mankind had to escape was the existence of coerced or forced labour, such as men excercised against women who had been nor more than “drudges and slaves” to them, and then over the millennia by other forms of coercion such as “various grades of slavery, serfdom, villainage, and through various organizations of castes and guilds” until the “modern industrial system” liberated them. What this quotation focusses on is the passage where Sumner describes in very Hayekian terms how the modern industrial system is a spontaneous order which has emerged unplanned by any one individual, and where economic activities across the globe are coordinated by complex “financial machinery” (prices?) There is also more than a single dose of Bastiat-like economic “harmony” in sentences like the following: “rights and interests are measured and satisfied without any special treaty or convention at all”. Sumner concludes by saying that the accumulation of capital and the prosperity made possible by “this great co-operative effort is one of the great products of civilization—one of its costliest products and highest refinements.”