William Graham Sumner on how “society” helps the drunkard in the gutter (1883)

William Graham Sumner

Found in The Forgotten Man and Other Essays (corrected edition)

The American sociologist William Graham Sumner (1840-1910) observed that when the state uses tax money to help someone who is down and out on their luck it is ultimately paid for by “the forgotten man”:

When you see a drunkard in the gutter, you are disgusted, but you pity him. When a policeman comes and picks him up you are satisfied. You say that “society” has interfered to save the drunkard from perishing. Society is a fine word, and it saves us the trouble of thinking to say that society acts. The truth is that the policeman is paid by somebody, and when we talk about society we forget who it is that pays. It is the Forgotten Man again. It is the industrious workman going home from a hard day’s work, whom you pass without noticing, who is mulcted of a percentage of his day’s earnings to hire a policeman to save the drunkard from himself. All the public expenditure to prevent vice has the same effect.

Sumner’s 1883 essay on “The Forgotten Man” is in many ways an American version of Frédéric Bastiat’s powerful insight into “the seen” and “the unseen”, or in this case “the forgotten”. Sumner reminds us that the process of collecting and spending taxes is a zero sum game where one person (the taxpayer) has to lose if another person (the recipient of tax money) gains, of which is something Sumner does not approve. However, the consequences of the “forgotten man” being unseen by the majority go much further.

Sumner believes that people should learn from their mistakes and the intervention by a member of the state, whether it be the policeman or the welfare officer, prevents an important feedback mechanism from operating as it should. The man who wastes his money and his life by drinking to excess should suffer the consequences of his actions. If he does not, then there is little incentive to learn from his errors and change his behaviour in the future. If he knows that someone else will pick him up out of the gutter and buy him a square meal, then he may be more inclined to drink to excess again. Then there is the societal problem of the impact of a large state bureaucracy like the Prussian of the French, to use Sumner’s late 19th century examples. The ultimate cost of having a Prussian or French style of regulatory bureaucracy is that one has to give up some of one’s freedom in order to pay for their salaries and the costs of picking thousands, perhaps millions of people, out of the various gutters they have fallen into.