It might seem a bit odd for a Bleeding Heart Libertarian to devote so much time to the thought of Sumner (and, for that matter, to his contemporary Herbert Spencer). Both of these men today are remembered mostly as social Darwinists who celebrated laissez-faire and excoriated socialism and charity in the name of the “survival of the fittest.” Why would someone who believes in social justice care what people like this have to say?
Part of the reason is to learn from them. Libertarians have been arguing against ideas like “social justice” for a long time. And while some of the arguments just don’t work, a lot of them contain a good deal of sense. I want to sort out the good from the bad, and take as much of the former on board to develop a view about social justice that’s responsive to it. Since Spencer and Sumner have the reputation of being more strongly against aid to the poor than just about any other libertarian of whom I’ve heard, I figure their arguments are worth taking a very close look at.
But this leads directly to my second reason for being interested in these two figures – to see if and to what extent their reputation matches up with the reality of their views. Every libertarian I know is used to having their position misrepresented and vilified in the most uncharitable light. I’ve seen this happen enough times to people whose work I know well enough to spot the smear. So when people vilify Spencer and Sumner as “social Darwinists,” I want to look at their work first-hand before making up my mind one way or another.
Unfortunately, people who use the term “social Darwinism” aren’t terribly careful about providing a clear definition of the term, so my first essay is devoted largely to figuring out what it is supposed to mean.
The second essay argues that William Graham Sumner was not, in fact, a social Darwinist. He was a laissez-faire liberal who was a fierce opponent of militarism, protectionism, and plutocracy. Far from being a champion of the strong against the weak, he was a champion of the common man against both the socialists who would exploit his labor for the benefit of the masses, and the plutocrats who would exploit him for the benefit of the privileged few.
It’s a long essay, and I hope you’ll have the patience to read the whole thing. But to entice you, and to give you just a sense of why the charge of social Darwinism misfires, here’s one of my favorite passages from Sumner’s excellent anti-imperialist lecture, “The Conquest of the United States by Spain.”
There are plenty of people in the United States today who regard Negroes as human beings, perhaps, but of a different order from white men, so that the ideas and social arrangements of white men cannot be applied to them with propriety. Others feel the same way about Indians. This attitude of mind, wherever you meet with it, is what causes tyranny and cruelty. It is this disposition to decide off-hand that some people are not fit for liberty and self-government which gives relative truth to the doctrine that all men are equal, and inasmuch as the history of mankind has been one long story of the abuse of some by others, who, of course, smoothed over their tyranny by some beautiful doctrines of religion, or ethics, or political philosophy, which proved that it was all for the best good of the oppressed, therefore the doctrine that all men are equal has come to stand as one of the corner-stones of the temple of justice and truth. It was set up as a bar to just this notion that we are so much better than others that it is liberty for them to be governed by us.
More here. And more to come in the next two weeks.