Sumner sought to justify the new socio-economic order by marrying Social Darwinism with a liberalism almost exclusively concerned with the economically acquisitive individual. Social Darwinism was an application of Darwins ideas of natural selection and biological evolution to human societies. Its proponents were bent on naturalizing the social conditions of the period, particularly those conditions which aroused the greatest controversy and conflict--the rapid growth of an impoverished working class, the huge gulf that had opened up between rich and poor, and the often filthy and disorganized conditions in the burgeoning industrial cities. Social Darwinists like Sumner argued that social existence was a competitive struggle among individuals possessing different natural capacities and traits. Overall, those with better traits succeeded, becoming wealthy and powerful, while those lacking in inner discipline or intelligence sank into poverty. Thus the very conditions that reformers decried were, to Sumner, indications that society was functioning as it should. Government must not interfere to ameliorate conditions because this would only result in the preservation of bad traits even while penalizing those who possessed good ones. Thus social evolution was best served by a minimal state. Social Darwinism eliminated any sense of moral obligation to the poor or (as we see in Sumner) to virtually anyone else beyond ones family.
Social Darwinism has been criticized on many grounds, two of which Ill mention here. First, it lacked an ability to conceptualize the structural dynamics of the industrialization process. Such things as the emergence of new classes or the tendency toward economic concentration and limitation of competition cannot be accounted for by Social Darwinism. Nor is this blindness accidental. To give prominence to structural factors would undercut the Social Darwinist emphasis on individual attributes and action as causes of social conditions and of the individuals sole responsibility for his or condition.
Second, human societies have developed--for better and for worse--by applying human ingenuity to the design of tools and of ways of organizing work and concerted action generally. Hence human societies are certainly not natural. In fact, Locke, the philosopher usually cited as the originator of liberalism, argued that human governments were not natural but conventional. If the economies, technologies, and institutions of human societies are products of human ingenuity, then shouldnt we pay attention to the human purposes they serve and not deceive ourselves with the pretense that they are natural?
What I want to do now is examine some of the main features of Sumners doctrine:
The minimal state: Traditional liberal doctrine held that citizens were sovereign and that the state existed to serve specific purposes for them. Sumner, responding to early pressure for social reform by the state, reaffirms this. All the state owes anybody is peace, order, and the guarantees of rights (342). As he later makes clear, rights refers chiefly to property rights and to a very limited notion of equal opportunity. It seems safe to say that peace and order refer to the states responsibility to guard against foreign attacks, domestic insurrections, and violations of the law, particularly violations of the property of men and the honor of women (349). Beyond this, it is not the function of the State to make men happy (346). Sumner views social reform as little more than the use of the state to steal from the rich, comfortable, prosperous, virtuous, respectable, educated, and healthy (341) in order to give to classes of people who have not been able to satisfy their own desires . . . [and who] do not take their achievements as a fair measure of their [property] rights (343).
Sumners position is more consistent than those who strongly opposed social welfare and industrial regulation but who made enormous exceptions when it came to subsidies and benefits for industry. Under the rubric of jobbery, Sumner condemns any scheme which aims to gain, not by the legitimate fruits of industry and enterprise, but by extorting from somebody a part of his product under guise of some pretended industrial undertaking (354). He had in mind state development projects--buildings, internal improvements, investment credits, etc., along with the greatest bit of jobbery of all, the protective tariff (354).
Glorification of economically acquisitive individualism: Sumner accepts without question that material success is indicative of virtue; specifically, that it evidences ones superior capacity for labor and self-denial. These are virtues ordained by God and Nature, which have also determined the chances and conditions of life on earth once for all (343). (The parallel between this biological predetermination and the Calvinist belief in predestination is only one of many parallels between Sumner and Calvinism.) The one duty of Every man and woman is to take care of his or her own self (351). In fulfilling this private duty one at the same time fulfills ones social duty (352). Moreover, no man can do more than take care of himself and possibly his family.
Given these premises, Sumner naturally applauds the existence of large fortunes. Wealth is synonymous with virtue and wealthy individuals are the biological future of the species because they possess the best traits. The state should not interfere with the accumulation of wealth because, since wealth comes through labor and self-denial, men would not strive to accumulate it if it did not secure advantages of a high order. Moreover, The possession of capital is . . . an indispensable prerequisite of educational, scientific, and moral goods (348). This assertion, especially the moral goods phrase, only makes sense if one lives in Sumners moral universe. It is diametrically opposed to Thoreaus moral philosophy, for example. In any case, it allows Sumner to conclude that private capital accumulation is coextensive with the development of civilization.
Sumners denigration of workers is only the flip side of this argument. Those who are exploited are themselves to blame for their exploitation. By being spendthrift and indulging in vulgar enjoyments they lay themselves open to exploitation. And by increasing their numbers, they compete with each other for food and wages, driving up the cost of the former and while lowering the latter. Even the prudent few thereby suffer the folly of the rest (348). This last observation actually clashes with Sumners emphasis on social evolution as the outcome of competition among individuals, since here we see that a structural dynamic--the supposed promiscuous breeding of the underclass--actually prevents the meritorious members of this class from succeeding.
Repudiation of republicanism: Sumners doctrine can be thought of as a variety of liberalism purged of almost all links with republicanism. Of what are arguably the three leading tenets of republicanism--civic virtue, popular sovereignty, and economic independence as a condition of citizenship--only the last survives. Civic virtue--an active concern for the common good, a willingness to sacrifice if necessary for it, and an understanding that public action is a vital mode of personal fulfillment--is regarded by Sumner as mere meddling in other peoples business. Popular sovereignty is undesirable given the vices and passions of human nature. If political power be given to the masses who have not hitherto had it, nothing will stop them from abusing it but laws and institutions (346). Democratic government is particularly dangerous because sure of itself and ready to undertake anything (346).