William Graham Sumner on the “do-nothing” state vs. ”the meddling” state (1888)

William Graham Sumner

The American sociologist William Graham Sumner (1840-1910) distinguished between an older conception of the state, as a “do nothing” state, and a newer conception which was beginning to appear in the late 1880s, where there was constant “meddling and fussing and regulating”:

If a state well performed its functions of providing peace, order and security, as conditions under which the people could live and work, it would be the proudest proof of its triumphant success that it had nothing to do — that all went so smoothly that it had only to look on and was never called to interfere; just as it is the test of a good business man that his business runs on smoothly and prosperously while he is not harassed or hurried. The people who think that it is proof of enterprise to meddle and “fuss” may believe that a good state will constantly interfere and regulate, and they may regard the other type of state as “non-government.”

In his book Ptotectionism (1888) Sumner argued that the movement to expand tariffs and other protectionist measures was just one example of a new way of looking at the state which was coming into vogue in the late nineteenth century. A new generation of “lawyers, editors, littérateurs and professional politicians” had seized control of the administration and were busy meddling, fussing, and regulating all kinds of economic activity. They did this because they thought of the the economy as “an object to be molded, made, produced by contrivance” not as a growing organism which had its own set of rules. Not matter what these new economic regulators did, in Sumner’s view they were like so many “mischievous school-boys”, “alchemists”, or “untrained inventors” who tinkered with the economy, instead of seeing it as “a seat of original forces which must be reckoned with all the time; as an organism whose life will go on any how, perverted, distorted, diseased, vitiated as it may be by obstructions or coercions.” His recommendation was to go back to an older conception of the state, as a nightwatchman state which looked after “peace, order and security” and did nothing concerning anything else.