Links, Libertarianism

William Graham Sumner and “Social Darwinism”

Over at Liberty Fund’s “Liberty Matters” site, I have an essay on the neglected political ideas of William Graham Sumner. Here’s a bit from the beginning:

History has not been kind to the legacy of William Graham Sumner. In his time (1840-1910), Sumner was one of the most prestigious and widely read libertarian intellectuals in the United States. Beyond his more technical academic work Sumner also wrote passionately and voluminously in defense of laissez faireon a wide range of social issues. His popular critique of protectionism, “The –ism Which Teaches that Waste Makes Wealth” (1885) and his denunciation of imperialism in “The Conquest of the United States by Spain” (1898) are two of his most impressive polemical works. Sumner’s most sustained investigation of questions of economic policy and distributive justice appeared in a collection essays What Social Classes Owe to Each Other (1883) which includes his most famous single essay – “The Forgotten Man” (1884). Unfortunately, Sumner’s intellectual legacy suffered essentially the same fate as that of his contemporary Herbert Spencer, and for much the same reason. From near-ubiquity and respectability, Sumner’s ideas have descended into obscurity and disrepute. To the extent he is remembered at all today, it is mostly for his alleged “social Darwinism.”

Following my essay is a terrific discussion featuring contributions from David Hart, Robert Leroux, and Fabio Rojas. Be sure to check it out!

Published on:
Author: Matt Zwolinski
  • Sean II

    “The Conquest of the United States by Spain”

    Great turn of phrase, that was.

    If libertarian think tanks had been around in 1898, they would have said: “These fears are overblown. The world’s freest society and the one with its most vibrant markets is also the world’s largest empire, Great Britain. Therefore empire does not threaten liberty and as far as we can see it only changes nations which undertake it for the better. Sumner’s thesis is falsified.”

    • Luke Reeshus

      You need an interlocutor so, at my own risk:

      “If center-right think tanks had been around in 1898, they would have said…”

      Those center-right think tanks with your words in their mouths would not have been wrong, would they, at least at the time? (Besides the Geneva bit because, as far as I know, Geneva has always been a nice place—even, relative to the times, when the Calvinists got hold of it.)

      I guess my real question is, is the U.K.’s descent into welfare statism after WWII as closely linked to its empire as you seem to be suggesting? (At least, I think that’s what you’re driving at.)

      • Sean II

        Mostly I was spoofing the vacuous optimism and pseudo-empiricism which tends to characterize such think tanks. Those guys are more than happy to trim the time scales (e.g. look how low the risk of terrorism is, if you start counting on 9/12/01) and sneak in arbitrary categories (the risk looks even lower if next you exclude ‘domestic’ attacks!).

        Most of all they love to stop thinking once a friendly example has been discovered (e.g. AEI ran a truly moronic piece last year arguing don’t worry automation can’t produce disemployment, because after ATMs were introduced the number of bank tellers actually increased. Naturally they concluded that the banks must have plowed all the savings from automation right back into wages. Of course the real story is: they didn’t control for population growth. And why would you, once the desired answer is in hand?)

        In this case I was borrowing the structure of an even dumber argument, oft made made Catotarians, and indeed not unknown to these pages.

        • Luke Reeshus

          In this case I was borrowing the structure of an even dumber argument oft made by Catotarians, and indeed not unknown to these pages. Can you guess which?

          Mmm… no, not specifically. Does it have something to do with them ignoring the warning propounded in World on Fire?

          • Sean II

            No, but very close guess.

            What I had in mind was the borders argument which goes like this:

            Sane man: “Mass immigration will probably change our culture.”

            Catotarian: “Wrong. L.A. has more culture than Boise, and also more immigrants. Therefore immigration improves culture.”

            Three things wrong with that:

            1) Ceteris paribus. Returning to our original example: London and Geneva were not places where “other things equal” applied in 1900. One had six million people, the other 90,000. Much the same goes for LA and Boise now. The former isn’t nicer because it has more immigrants. It has more immigrants because it is nicer.

            2) Equivocation. The “culture” referred to in the first sentence is moral and political. The person making that argument is referring to deep values, like “let’s mostly leave each other alone”, etc. The stuff of which high-trust, open, liberal societies are made.

            The “culture” referred to in the pseudo-rebuttal is aesthetic and culinary. L.A. has better restaurants and dance troupes than Boise.

            But it does not have a better political culture. If L.A. (or New York or San Diego or take your pick of coastal cities) were a city state left at the mercy of its own voters, it would quickly collapse into a Chavez style of crony socialism. There’d be an end to the culture of leaving each other alone.

            3) Time scale. The other factor is: failure to think forward. Our coastal cities are indeed very nice places to live right now, but for the reasons above stated: red state hicks have stopped coastal voters from getting the intrusive federal government they crave (if only because those hicks crave a different type of locally-based intrusion).

            As the national demography shifts so that more and more of the United States culturally resembles its coasts, this check will be removed, and our politics will cease to be competitive in certain regions and categories.

            Put differently: if demographically induced cultural change is Type 1 diabetes, we’re currently living through the beta cell honeymoon. Our body politic has a few classically liberal cells still running around, and in many ways they seem to benefit from the disruption of the old order. The guards are quarreling, and so its easy to sneak things like uber and bitcoin and uncensored internet media past them. This dynamic society seems like it might be a friend to such freedoms. But in fact it has already sown the seeds of their doom, by guaranteeing a future of one party rule.

            People may object that the future is hard to predict, but in this respect it most certainly is not. You just look at California, and extrapolate for Texas and Florida.

            And by the way: what do open borders and empire have in common? They both share the premise that we can convert anyone we want to our political culture, just by getting them under our government.

            The only difference is: imperialists want to do this by moving our government to them, and border openers want to do it by moving them to our government.

          • Peter from Oz

            The Empire was a source of cultural strenthening for Britain. But unlike the immigration that Britain has today, that cultural enrichment came from being in a position of strength vis a vis Johnny Foreigner.
            But that was when Britain had suprlus population to ssnd to the colonies, as did the other European colonia powers. These days te European birthrates have tumbled, as their elites lead the people to cultural and demographic suicide

          • Luke Reeshus

            Ah yes, I’ve seen you make the distinction between political and “culinary” culture before, as it relates to immigration. And I think you’re right.

            My only point of contention arises when it comes to specific types of immigrants. The U.S. mainly gets people from Latin America and, frankly, I’m not that worried about them. I know not much about South America, but surely there is a descent anti-statist caballero element in the culture of Mexicans and other Central Americans. If the anti-federal / pro-federal divide is really a rural / urban divide, which I think it is, then demographic change in the rural part, so longer as it remains rural, shouldn’t change things that much. What’s more, it contradicts the extrapolating-California-to-Texas bit. I mean, isn’t California’s blue-ness more a product of its dense coastal populations than its cultural demographics? Because “white” Texans outnumber Hispanics by only 8% of the population, and that state is still about as anti-federal as it gets. Or is that just the product of effective, Texas-style assimilation? I don’t know.

            None of this is an argument for open borders though; we should still regulate the influx.

            So, more Latin Americans in the U.S.? I think we’ll be fine, over the long run. I can’t say the same for Europe though. In fact, I can’t see how anyone—that is, anyone who has paid attention to Europe’s MENA immigration rates and to the multicultural joys that have resulted—could say that.

          • Sean II

            Yeah but that only matters for the relative speed of transition. Hispanic voters are a stable 70-30 proposition for Democrats. California has more blue leaning whites, so when you reach 40% Hispanic you get a dark blue state. Texas is, well…Texas, so it takes a bit longer, and maybe more than 40% to produce the same result.

            Not because of assimilation though. Hispanics in Texas vote like hispanics everywhere else, even if turnout is lower. Really it’s because of block-ier voting by whites in that state.

            Timing aside, we know how the story ends. When you’ve got a group A which votes ~70% party X, and group A is growing faster than any other segment, eventually X is going to dominate that place politically.

            Key thing most people miss: switching parties is mostly a white thing. That American political pendulum balance where we give power to the Dems, they fuck things up, we freeze them with an off-year correction, then we give power to the GOP, they fuck things up, we kick them out in turn, rinse, repeat – that is specifically what’s being threatened here. Blacks don’t switch at all, and Hispanics switch far less than whites.

            California is what you get when political competition stops, and the real consequence – public pension driven fiscal calamity – hasn’t even come to visit yet. But it will. Except instead of the usual scenario where the party in charge of the disaster gets turned out, they’ll get sent right back with a fresh dose of emergency power.

            Europe has a different problem, with numbers too small at this point to have much impact at the polls. But who needs that when you have so much action direct?

          • A big part of what I’ve always considered important in Western culture is the entrepreneurial spirit. In America, immigrants have always been a robust if not primary source of new entrepreneurs, so much so that Indian shop owners and Mexican construction or cleaning companies and Italian auto shops are as much a part of those ethnic stereotypes as any of the explicitly negative stuff.

            Anyway, that’s how I see it. I’m curious as to why you never make any mention of this when you talk about immigration’s impact on Western culture. What do you think: Am I only seeing what I want to see, or is this an under-explored part of your ideas on immigration?

          • Sean II

            Well certainly the image of the immigrant-entrepreneur is well established in our culture. Only a frost-hearted maniac could fail to be moved by those win-win stories of dramatic life improvement. Yesterday an Igbo fleeing Boko Haram, today the founder of a web development start-up. About the only patriotism I’ve ever felt came from stories like that.

            But I’m afraid there may be a bit of salience bias going on here. Consider this from the SBA:

            “Minority and Hispanic business owners make up a small share of all U.S. business owners. However, their share has been on the rise. The rate of minority business ownership in 2012 was 14.6 percent…black business owners made up 49.9 percent of all minority owners in 2012, while Asians made up 29.6 percent. The Hispanic share of all U.S. business owners was 10.3 percent in 2012.”

            So as I read that, it seems like Hispanics are underrepresented among entrepreneurs, being about 60% as likely to start/own as native whites – i.e. 17% of population, 10% of business owners. Though like they said, the gap may be closing.

            Interestingly Asians seem very close to census proportional – 5% of the population, 4.5% of entrepreneurs. Five minutes ago I would have told you they were probably overrepresented, and I would have been wrong.

            I guess you could argue that, controlling for prior circumstances, this paints a better picture than it seems at first glance: many immigrants arrive empty handed, so to see any new business development from that group is pretty impressive. You could also argue we’d see more, if not for all the entry barriers in our mixed economy.

            I think there’s something to both those arguments, but not enough to overcome the big numbers. Of the nation’s 55 million hispanics, only about 1-2 million are new arrivals million at any given time. So if you have only 60% of the base rate for entrepreneurship among that group you need some other explanations as well.

            Likewise for entry-barriers, which tend to cut both ways. When you think about it a lot of our economy is rigger to discourage rich white kids from starting businesses, and instead credential them into the safety of guilds and corporate cube farms. The classic Jewish immigrant trajectory calls this to mind: first generation: shitty garment job, second generation: own garment shop, third generation: use all the money from shop to send kids to Yale, so they can draw a nice steady salary from some hospital or law firm and never know the cruel fluctuating fortunes of business ownership.

            ETA – out of curiosity, I checked a couple metrics for entrepreneurship by state.

            Start-ups per capita – Montana #1, Vermont #2, New Mexico #3
            SBA funding per capita – Utah #1, Colorado #2, California #3

            The presence of New Mexico and Colorado on those lists is interesting (California you’d expect, and frankly it should be ashamed to finish 3rd). Maybe supports your point. Perhaps it could be argued that, even if immigrants themselves don’t start more businesses, more businesses get started in areas enriched by immigration driven demand. Something like that?

          • Well, this study ( finds that immigrants have higher business ownership and formation rates than the native-born population.

            A 2012 study covered by MSM (here for example: found that immigrants were twice as likely to start a business as natives and that in 2011, immigrants created 28% of all new firms.

            It looks like many of these studies are politically motivated, so take with a grain of salt, but the findings are strong enough to indicate that where there is smoke, there is probably fire.

            I think what you said about “the classic Jewish immigrant trajectory” is important in that it highlights what I see as a major strength of immigration. There is a tendency for Americans to be unambitious about their careers, wanting mostly to settle into a steady job and a house with a white picket fence. Just four generations deep (in your example), an immigrant’s dynasty is reduced to middle class complacency.

            If the above links are correct, then immigrants serve an important function in American culture, keeping the entrepreneurial spirit alive. Americans might not actually believe that hard work gets you anywhere anymore, but if the immigrants keep believing it, and keep coming, then we’ll get a much-needed influx of new Americans with “classic” American values.

          • Sean II

            That first link bounced on me, but I think I found what you meant with a 2012 SBA report showing immigrants at 10.5% owners by total work force as against just 9.3% for natives.

            So not a very big difference but stipulating it’s accurate you can probably guess my objection: the grouping “immigrants” is too broad and it begs the question of everyone being behaviorally the same. Hence why I prefer data broken down by different groups. There may be a handful of sub groups tenting up the numbers for everyone else.

            Reminds me of a joke Steve Martin told about his former boss: “Many people forget that Lorne Michaels is an immigrant…who came here from Canada in 1974 with nothing but a dream, and a million-five.”

            On to the second point: I’m not a fan of the stat “new business formations per 100,000” (the one CNN seems to focus on). Reason: getting a bounce off the launch pad is not enough. The bar for a “start” is too low, and we really should only count businesses that are actuallly up and running at any given point in time. For as that same article notes, new formations are also higher among native high school dropouts. But almost none of them turn out to be The Woz. We need to control for something similar here: it may be that immigrants form a lot of businesses, but if they’re very small and have high rates of failure, that’s not the invigorating tonic we were hoping for.

            Classic example: landscaping. A lot of starts in that industry as guys who labored last summer break off to be their own boss this year, but also a lot of quick turnarounds & pawned equipment. The controllling stat here should be: at any given time, on average, how many landscapers work for themselves vs someone else. And so on for food trucks, car washes, etc.

            Im happy as long we agree to make an empirical question of it. Because it is important to study how different groups fare in this economy.

            Are South Asian immigrants really overrepresented in hotel management, and if so why? Why do West Indians own more businesses than native-born blacks. Why are Hispanics more often victimized by multi-level marketing schemes like Herbalife, etc. Are Koreans repeating the same pattern as Jews a century before, where entrepreneurship in one generation gives way to credentialed rent seeking in the next? And why is entrepreneurship at the apex of Silicon Valley so very undiverse?

          • I wish the link had come through. Let me try it again, shortened:

            Some interesting findings here.

            • Immigrants are found to have higher business
            ownership and formation rates than non-immigrants.
            Roughly one out of ten immigrant workers
            owns a business and 620 of 100,000 immigrants
            (0.62 percent) start a business each month.
            • Immigrant-owned businesses start with higher
            levels of startup capital than non-immigrant-
            owned businesses. Nearly 20 percent of immigrant-
            owned businesses started with $50,000 or
            more in startup capital, compared with 15.9 percent
            of non-immigrant-owned businesses.
            • Roughly two-thirds of immigrant-owned businesses
            report that the most common source of
            startup capital is personal or family savings. Other
            commonly reported sources of startup capital by
            immigrant businesses are credit cards, bank loans,
            personal or family assets, and home equity loans.
            Overall, the sources of startup capital used by
            immigrant businesses do not differ substantially
            from those used by non-immigrant firms.

          • Sean II

            That’s the one I found, but thanks for resending.

  • CJColucci

    There may be a good book to be written about how so many thinkers considered important

    in their day fade and become the sole province of academic specialists or of cranks — at least where those categories do not overlap — while others become monuments of general intellectual culture. Perhaps it is merely Sturgeon’s Law in application, but I am skeptical, because lasting influence seems only vaguely related to quality or correctness.