In his day, William Graham Sumner (1840-1910) was one of the most prestigious and widely read libertarian intellectuals in the United States. A professor of political and social science at Yale, Sumner was one of the founding figures in the academic discipline of sociology. And his most famous and enduring work, Folkways, is still regarded as an important sociological exploration of cultural norms and institutions that, along the way, develops important insights into the theory of spontaneous order. Beyond his more technical academic work, however, Sumner also wrote passionately and voluminously in defense of laissez-faire on a wide range of social issues.

His popular critique of protectionism (“The –ism Which Teaches that Waste Makes Wealth”) and his denunciation of imperialism in “The Conquest of the United States by Spain” are two of his most impressive polemical works. In1883, he published a series of eleven short essays on the relations between workers and employers in Harper’s Weekly. These essays were later republished as What Social Classes Owe to Each Other, a book that represents Sumner’s most sustained investigation of questions of economic policy and distributive justice. Two of the essays were later combined and expanded upon to form what is no doubt Sumner’s most famous single essay—“The Forgotten Man.”
Unfortunately, Sumner’s intellectual legacy suffered essentially the same fate as that of his contemporary Herbert Spencer, and for much the same reason. From near-ubiquity and respectability, Sumner’s ideas have descended into obscurity and disrepute. To the extent that he is remembered at all today, it is mostly for his alleged “social Darwinism.” This charge against Sumner (and Spencer) was made famous by Richard Hofstadter in his 1944 book, Social Darwinism in American Thought, the influence of which on academic and popular understandings of Sumner (and Spencer) can hardly be overstated.
In this essay and the three that follow it, I want to explore that critique by examining Sumner’s ideas and arguments, especially those presented in his influential essay, “The Forgotten Man.” I will begin in this essay by providing some background information on Sumner and examining the common charge that he is a “social Darwinist.” The next essay will show why we have good reason to reject that charge. In the third essay, I will examine Sumner’s famous idea of the Forgotten Man. The final essay will discuss what lessons Sumner’s thought has to teach us about the question of moral and political obligations to the poor.
Let us begin by examining the meaning and basis of the charge of social Darwinism. As influential as it has been, Hofstadter’s interpretation of Sumner and Spencer is clearly a hostile one. Hofstadter himself was a fierce critic of the laissez-faire economics for which both Sumner and Spencer stood, a former member of Columbia University’s Communist Party unit who wrote that he “hate[d] capitalism and everything that goes with it” (p. xi). In Spencer and Sumner, Hofstadter found two men who stood for everything he detested in social thought, and who fought bitterly against that which he himself prized—a progressive economy directed by enlightened expert rule.
From time to time, scholars such as Robert Bannister and, more recently, Thomas Leonard have argued that Hofstadter’s claims are based on serious misreadings of the relevant texts. Nevertheless, in spite of these protestations, the charge of “social Darwinism” has proved difficult to defeat. Part of the difficulty, no doubt, stems from the fact that nowhere in his book did Hofstadter bother to provide a clear definition of “social Darwinism.” How can one prove that Sumner was not a Social Darwinist if no one who thinks he is will tell you what that phrase even means?
The best we can do in this respect is to make some reasonable assumptions about what the phrase was intended to mean, based upon the way in which it was used. On this basis, the core ideas of social Darwinism seem to be that human society is marked by the same sort of “struggle for existence” that characterizes the animal world, and that the victors of this struggle emerge according to the rule of “survival of the fittest.” Economic competition is one aspect of this struggle, and so a policy of strict laissez-faire is necessary in order to ensure the fitness of the individuals who constitute society. Interference with laissez-faire in the form of coercive redistribution or even (perhaps) charitable giving to the weak, would retard the evolutionary pressures leading to greater and greater fitness, and must therefore be opposed. Economic success is a inevitable product of virtue and fitness, and economic failure is a telltale sign of vice and unfitness. That which has might, is necessarily right, and that which is weak may be trodden upon with impunity, nay (if this satirical poem is to be believed) with righteousness!
What Adam Smith has clearly proved,
That ‘tis self-interest alone
by which the wheels of life are moved?
This competition is the law
By which we either live or die;
I’ve no demand thy labor for,
Why, then, should I thy wants supply?
And Herbert Spencer’s active brain
Shows how the social struggle ends;
The weak die out the strong remain;
‘Tis this that nature’s plan intends.
For the social Darwinist, then, the law of capitalism and the law of the jungle are one and the same.
But if this is what social Darwinism means, then neither Spencer nor Sumner were social Darwinists. I refer readers to Leonard’s essay above, or to our own George Smith’s classic piece, for a refutation of the charge as applied to Spencer. In my next essay, I will show why the charge misfires as applies to Sumner as well.