William Graham Sumner, to the extent that he is remembered at all today, is remembered mostly as a “social Darwinist.” As I explained in my last essay, this charge is almost entirely the creation of Richard Hofstadter, whose 1944 book Social Darwinism in American Thought applied the label both to Sumner and to his contemporary Herbert Spencer. Both of these men shared a commitment to a laissez-faire economics that Hofstadter loathed, and an opposition to the kind of “scientific” progressive reform that he championed. And both men incorporated ideas from the new science of evolution within their social thought, Spencer of course having made a significant theoretical contribution to the development of that science himself.
“Fitness,” for Sumner, was not a normative evaluation but a descriptive claim.
But a principled commitment to laissez-faire does not make one a social Darwinist. Indeed, depending upon how that latter vague term is defined, a commitment to laissez-faire is not even compatible with social Darwinism. As applied to Herbert Spencer, the charge of social Darwinism has already been repeatedly refuted. In the remainder of this essay, I will show why it fails as applied to Sumner too.
The first and most significant problem hinges on the correct understanding of key evolutionary terms in Sumner’s thought, such as “the struggle for existence” and “the survival of the fittest.” There is a natural temptation—sometimes bolstered by Sumner’s own infelicitous phrasing—to read these phrases as expressing a normative goal, as though the survival of the fittest was something that we should strive to achieve, and arrange our social institutions to facilitate. But this is not how Sumner understood the idea.
“Fitness,” for Sumner, was not a normative evaluation but a descriptive claim. To be “fit” is not necessarily to be “better” or “more virtuous” than one who is unfit. All that fitness means, in the evolutionary sense, is adaptation to environment. Thus, in Sumner’s “colorful” words, “rattlesnakes may survive where horses perish…or highly cultivated white men may die where Hottentots flourish.” The point is easily missed in the face of Sumner’s unfortunate racism, but even racism is not the same as social Darwinism, and the substance of Sumner’s point here is clearly at odds with the popular interpretation of that idea. The fact that a rattlesnake will outlive a horse in a desert doesn’t make the rattlesnake morally better than the horse. It just means that the rattlesnake is better adapted to surviving in the desert. That is all.
Thus, the survival of the fittest is a constraint within which men and laws must operate, not a goal to be pursued. And it is an inescapable constraint. We could not avoid it if we wanted to. So it is not as though there is anything particularly Darwinist about capitalism, as opposed to other forms of social organization. Switching from a capitalist economy to a socialist one would not render evolutionary pressures defunct. It would only alter the context in which they operate, and the effects they produce.
The real misery of mankind is the struggle for existence; why not “declare” that there ought not to be any struggle for existence, and that there shall not be any more? Let it be decreed that existence is a natural right, and let it be secured in that way. If we attempt to execute this plan, it is plain that we shall not abolish the struggle for existence; we shall only bring it about that some men must fight that struggle for others. (“Some Natural Rights”)
This point about the misinterpretation of key evolutionary terms counts as much against the charge of social Darwinism as applied to Spencer as it does to the charge applied to Sumner. But the charge of social Darwinism is especially difficult to sustain against Sumner, given his consistent praise and support of common working people against the economic and political “elite.” As I shall discuss in more detail in my next essay, Sumner’s hero was not the visionary entrepreneur or the capitalist captain of enterprise. It was the ordinary working person, the productive force who supports not only himself and his family, but by doing solid work well and paying his taxes faithfully, supports the nation as a whole. It is the person who does his job, meets his obligations, and otherwise keeps to himself. It is the “Forgotten Man.”
Sumner recognized that plutocracy would be a problem as long as the economy was under political control.
Sumner saw the Forgotten Man as threatened on all sides. He is threatened by the socialist, of course, whose promise of equality for all can be met only by placing an even greater burden on the backs of the responsible and prudent. But Sumner saw an even more immediate threat to the Forgotten Man in plutocracy, the system in which wealth controls politics, and in which “money buys whatever the owner of money wants.”
The threat of plutocracy—which Sumner described as “the most sordid and debasing form of political energy known to us”—comes precisely from the rich, the powerful, and the successful. And Sumner’s passionate condemnation of these persons and the system they produce shows once again that he did not regard social or economic success as anything like sufficient for moral virtue. Wealth and power can be a product of virtuous traits of character such as industry, thrift, and self-mastery. But not necessarily. And so we need to draw a distinction between different means by which wealth can be acquired.
A great capitalist is no more necessarily a plutocrat than a great general is a tyrant. A plutocrat is a man who, having the possession of capital, and having the power of it at his disposal, uses it, not industrially, but politically; instead of employing laborers, he enlists lobbyists. Instead of applying capital to land, he operates upon the market by legislation, by artificial monopoly, by legislative privileges; he creates jobs, and erects combinations, which are half political and half industrial; he practises upon the industrial vices, makes an engine of venality, expends his ingenuity, not on processes of production, but on “knowledge of men,” and on the tactics of the lobby. The modem industrial system gives him a magnificent field, one far more profitable, very often, than that of legitimate industry. (“The Conflict of Democracy and Plutocracy”)
Sumner recognized that plutocracy would be a problem as long as the economy was under political control. And so his proposed solution was “to minimize to the utmost the relations of the state to industry.” In this way, far from viewing it a means by which the strong prosper at the expense the weak, Sumner saw a policy of laissez-faire as being the only reliable way to prevent such exploitation.
This leads directly to the third and final point, which is that it is the very essence of a system of laissez-faire to prohibit the violence and plunder that characterize the Darwinian “law of the jungle.” For Sumner, as for his contemporaries Herbert Spencer