Sumner criticizes the competing vested interests and the role of legislators in the “new democratic State” (1887)

William Graham Sumner

In an essay on “State Interference” (1887) the American sociologist William Graham Sumner (1840-1910) notes a number of important aspects of the “new democratic State”, one of which is that it unleashes a struggle between competing interests for larger shares of the product of industry, and secondly, that the legislators become experts at appearing to satisfy the clamor that inevitably arises because of this:

… when the old-fashioned theories of State interference are applied to the new democratic State, they turn out to be simply a device for setting separate interests in a struggle against each other inside the society. It is plain on the face of all the great questions which are offered to us as political questions to-day, that they are simply struggles of interests for larger shares of the product of industry. One mode of dealing with this distribution would be to leave it to free contract under the play of natural laws. If we do not do this, and if the State interferes with the distribution, how can we stop short of the mediaæval plan of reiterated and endless interference, with constant diminution of the total product to be divided?

… Now that the governmental machine is brought within everyone’s reach, the seduction of power is just as masterful over a democratic faction as ever it was over king or barons. No governing organ has yet abstained from any function because it acknowledged itself ignorant or incompetent. The new powers in the State show no disposition to do it. Nevertheless, the activity of the State, under the new democratic system, shows itself every year more at the mercy of clamorous factions, and legislators find themselves constantly under greater pressure to act, not by their deliberate judgment of what is expedient, but in such a way as to quell clamor, although against their judgment of public interests. It is rapidly becoming the chief art of the legislator to devise measures which shall sound as if they satisfied clamor while they only cheat it.

2010 is the 100th anniversary of the death of the American sociologist William Graham Sumner (1840-1910). What sets him apart is the fact that he was a laissez-faire classical liberal, an opponent of war and imperialism, as well as being one of the founding fathers of American sociology which he developed from his post at Yale University. In this essay he denounces in very strong terms any form of “state interference” whether in the realm of the national economy or in the private lives of individuals. He opens the essay from 1887 with the forthright statement that he has an “extreme prejudice against State interference” and concludes that it is “at the present time a matter of patriotism and civic duty to resist the extension of State interference.” After a brief survey of the history of state intervention since the Roman Empire he focuses his attention on what he calls the “new democratic State” which had emerged since the French and American Revolutions. What is interesting in this portion of the essay is his clear statement of a “class analysis” view of current politics, where powerful and vested interests plunder the hard working industrial classes, and his proto-public choice analysis of the behaviour of politicians in brokering the needs of these contending vested interests and promising to bring an end to all the “clamor” which surrounds modern politics. It is sobering to remember that he was writing this in 1887.