William Sumner in Modern Day America
In the late 1800’s, following the end of the American Civil War, the United States experienced a period of economic and social growth known as the Gilded Age. During this period, the rate of economic progression and industrial growth increased rapidly, causing a great disparity between the rich and the poor. With this disparity, justifications regarding the wide gap between the rich and the poor evolved, one being that this was the natural execution of Social Darwinism. The platform of William Graham Sumner (a minister turned sociologist) developed and while his philosophies and ideologies may differ in some aspects, they continue to be manifested in modern American Politics.
Social Darwinism debates that the natural inequalities of society stems from the notion of “survival of the fittest”. This social theory explains, that just like animals, humanity has evolved over time through competition. Social groups, whether separated by race, gender or class, are classified in a just economic manner due to biological improvements made by the few over time; that people have biological or intrinsic abilities regardless of their environment because these abilities are “biological” and with such competition then aids in development. Such elitism justifies the poverty levels of certain populace because unlike the wealthy, their social economic or racial group failed to evolve as quickly as the former. In modern American politics, Social Darwinism is seen through laissez-faire politics and arguably, can be said to be seen in the Republican Party’s agenda. In laissez-faire faire politics, individuals are free from government restraints and policies. Economic affairs of individuals and society are left up to the masses, and neither individuals nor society receive aid from the government or boundaries in their affairs. The theory behind laissez -faire is pure Social Darwinism at its core; as there is no intervention by the government, society and individuals must fend for themselves. The “strongest” prevail by their own means, and with so economic prosperity occurs. While America is not a pure laissez -faire capitalist system, certain groups and policies passed by congress continue to advocate this. The famous trickle down theory in Reaganomics is an example; where the government reduces spending and cuts down taxes for the rich in hopes that the rich will then accumulate more money to spend and thus the wealth will “trickle down” to the poor.
This of course, has been proven to be utter nonsense over and over again. Yet, the Republican Party is a huge advocate of this. Recently, their economic proposals of the recent budget of 2012; with its emphasis on providing greater economic benefits to the rich, thus transferring the burden to the middle-classes and poor while reducing public services is a blatant manifestation of Social Darwinism. The party’s outright disapproval of Obama care and many other policies adapted by the Obama administration, such as increasing taxes for the rich, was historically gridlocked.
In What Social Classes Owe Each Other, William Graham Sumner supports Social Darwinism through the mention of The Forgotten Man;
” In all these schemes and projects the organized intervention of society through the State is either planned or hoped for, and the State is thus made to become the protector and guardian of certain classes. The agents who are to direct the State action are, of course, the reformers and philanthropists. Their schemes, therefore, may always be reduced to this type–that A and B decide what C shall do for D. It will be interesting to inquire, at a later period of our discussion, who C is, and what the effect is upon him of all these arrangements. In all the discussions attention is concentrated on A and B, the noble social reformers, and on D, the “poor man.” I call C the Forgotten Man, because I have never seen that any notice was taken of him in any of the discussions (116).”
Sumner believed The Forgotten Man was anyone who pays taxes for a social program, while not benefiting from it. And since the Forgotten Man did not directly benefit from any of the social programs, he was not entitled to contribute to such programs. Instead, Sumner urged that the government should not interfere at all with society. That in the end, society itself will develop as it should through natural competition,
“Society needs first of all to be freed from these meddlers — that is, to be let alone. Here we are, then, once more back at the old doctrine — Laissez faire. Let us translate it into blunt English, and it will read, Mind your own business. It is nothing but the doctrine of liberty. Let every man be happy in his own way. If his sphere of action and interest impinges on that of any other man, there will have to be compromise and adjustment. Wait for the occasion. Do not attempt to generalize those interferences or to plan for them a priori. We have a body of laws and institutions which have grown up as occasion has occurred for adjusting rights. Let the same process go on. Practice the utmost reserve possible in your interferences even of this kind, and by no means seize occasion for interfering with natural adjustments (175).”
I am sure if you were to take Sumner’s argument of allowing the natural occurrences of life to establish social structures and law, you would see it guide lined in the Tea Party’s Agenda as well as the Republican Party’s policies. For both these political groups, Welfare creates government dependency; poverty is not about flawed economic policies but about personal laziness. Gay marriage is not about equal rights but about the government telling you what to morally believe in. And forget about social healthcare benefits and equal educational opportunity funding from the government. As you can see, William Graham Sumner would be completely supportive of such policies, as both he and the modern conservative platform believe that government should not meddle in the natural evolution of society. If still alive you could envision him, Newt Gingrich, and Paul Ryan, at most enjoying lunch together, sitting and discussing how the social-economic problems in American society are not meant to be dealt with; at least until it is of complete and utter importance to do so. They would nod and agree that the government should really just watch as people born with more opportunity succeed, as the majority of Americans die out in an economic struggle; for this creates a “stronger” society. This is hard to believe that Social Darwinism continues to run rampant in our America’s political leaders, for I am sure, most Americans have left Social Darwinism in history. ________________________________________________