William Graham Sumner (1840–1910) was a sociologist at Yale University, a historian of American banking, and great expositor of classical liberalism. Yes, this is the man often dismissed today as an outmoded "social Darwinist" — and this book shows why it is so important to the statists that his work is not given a fair hearing.
What the Social Classes Owe to Each Other was first published in 1883, and it asks a crucially important question: does any class or interest group have the duty and burden of fighting the battles of life for any other class or of solving the social problems to the satisfaction of any other class or group?
Sumner saw that the assumption of group obligation was destined to be a driving force behind the rise of social management in the future. Capital owes labor, the rich owe the poor, producers owe consumers, one sex owes another, one race owes another, this country owes that country, and so on ad infinitum.
How right he was, how incredibly prescient, to see this coming.
The assumption behind all these claims, writes Sumner, is that society consists of layers and layers of hidden and roiling conflicts and fights that can only be resolved by state intervention. These conflicts are rooted in the supposed reality that one group wins only at the expense of another group. The gains of some imply the losses of others. The path to achievement in society is trod over the well-being of others, and, similarly, the plight of underachievers is due to injustice.
So ingrained is this model of society that it is rarely questioned in public life today. Our politics consists almost entirely of the working out of these supposed conflicts and their attendant demands via public policy. Sumner not only tackles this view directly, he makes a strong contrary claim: under freedom, no group is obligated by force to serve another.
He goes further to present a completely contrary model of society, one that highlights the capacity for group cooperation. It is not conflict that forms the basis of society but exchange, good will, private property, contract, free association, and liberty — all rooted in the still-radical idea of individualism.
Sumner writes the following:
"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. Try first long and patiently whether the natural adjustment will not come about through the play of interests and the voluntary concessions of the parties."
What does the book have to do with the Austrian School? We have here Sumner presenting a model of society and political economy that fits nicely with Mises's own, as presented in essays such as "The Clash of Group Interests" (available in Money, Method, and the Market Process).
His treatment of the workings of group relations fits well with Rothbard's analysis of power. What the Social Classes Owe to Each Other is a neglected classic, a book that will make an enormous impact on a student or anyone who has absorbed the dominant culture of victimology and political conflict. It will provoke a complete rethinking of the functioning of society and economy.
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