Conservative Political Commentary

...usually with an attempt at historical and economic context

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Remembering the Forgotten Man

By Eddie Howell

                William Graham Sumner

[I am re-publishing this article from November 2009 because I feel the issues discussed are very relevant in
this election season when Democrats/Socialists are making such wild leftist promises]

In this article, I quote rather freely from William Graham Sumner’s essay, “The Forgotten Man.” It is well worth reading the whole essay, and whether you agree with Sumner or not, you can see that his position is reasoned and consistent. He describes the person who is truly forgotten in all the government’s glorious spending programs to benefit the “less fortunate,” the various “petted classes,” as Sumner called them.

William Graham Sumner (1840-1910) was born in New Jersey, moved with his family to Connecticut, where he attended public schools and Yale College. “After graduation, he studied ancient languages and history at Göttingen (1864) and theology and philosophy at Oxford (1866). The following year he was appointed tutor at Yale and then was ordained in the Protestant Episcopal Church. In 1869 he left Yale to be rector of churches in New York City and Morristown, N. J. In 1872 he became the first professor of political and social science at Yale - a position he long held.” He was a sociologist and a proponent of free-market capitalism and severe critic of government social programs and imperialism. His major work was Folkways, analyzing social life in terms of mores, institutions and values. [1]

The Forgotten Man (1883) is described in his essay of that name. His Forgotten Man is still very much the forgotten one today, the one, C, who, when A and B get together to decide what should be done for the suffering X, is compelled by the resulting law to also do for X what A and B have determined. He is never thought of, yet he is the one who sacrifices and pays for the “help” that is to be given to X.

Who Are We “Helping”? And Who Pays for It?
Sumner writes:
“The notion is accepted as if it were not open to any question that if you help the inefficient and vicious you may gain something for society or you may not, but that you lose nothing. This is a complete mistake. Whatever capital you divert to the support of a shiftless and good-for-nothing person is so much diverted from some other employment, and that means from somebody else. I would spend any conceivable amount of zeal and eloquence if I possessed it to try to make people grasp this idea. Capital is force. If it goes one way it cannot go another. If you give a loaf to a pauper you cannot give the same loaf to a laborer. Now this other man who would have got it but for the charitable sentiment which bestowed it on a worthless member of society is the Forgotten Man. The philanthropists and humanitarians have their minds all full of the wretched and miserable whose case appeals to compassion, attacks the sympathies, takes possession of the imagination, and excites the emotions. They push on towards the quickest and easiest remedies and they forget the real victim.

Now who is the Forgotten Man? He is the simple, honest laborer, ready to earn his living by productive work. We pass him by because he is independent, self-supporting, and asks no favors. He does not appeal to the emotions or excite the sentiments. He only wants to make a contract and fulfill it, with respect on both sides and favor on neither side. He must get his living out of the capital of the country. The larger the capital is, the better living he can get. Every particle of capital which is wasted on the vicious, the idle, and the shiftless is so much taken from the capital available to reward the independent and productive laborer. But we stand with our backs to the independent and productive laborer all the time. We do not remember him because he makes no clamor; but I appeal to you whether he is not the man who ought to be remembered first of all, and whether, on any sound social theory, we ought not to protect him against the burdens of the good-for-nothing. In these last years I have read hundreds of articles and heard scores of sermons and speeches which were really glorifications of the good-for-nothing, as if these were the charge of society, recommended by right reason to its care and protection. We are addressed all the time as if those who are respectable were to blame because some are not so, and as if there were an obligation on the part of those who have done their duty towards those who have not done their duty. Every man is bound to take care of himself and his family and to do his share in the work of society. It is totally false that one who has done so is bound to bear the care and charge of those who are wretched because they have not done so. …” [2] (emphasis added)

Do Sumner’s Arguments Apply Today?
The injustice of overburdening the Forgotten Man is obvious, yet it is the pattern of all legislative welfare and philanthropic programs. People today are taught to have a sense of entitlement to government assistance. If they decide not to fulfill their duties to work for their living and live responsibly, it must be society’s fault, and the C’s of the world must be ordered to help them.

As I mentioned in a previous article, during FDR’s reign, the “forgotten man” label was applied to the aggrieved X, leaving C as forgotten as ever. [3]

The current Administration, under Barack Obama, is trying to squeeze everything possible out of C to transfer much of his substance to government, thence to Obama’s favored X’s, the permanent government-dependent underclass the government has created, as well as socialist activist groups like ACORN, big labor unions, big banks, trial lawyers, environmental activists, etc. Some of the C’s of our society are beginning to band together in protests such as Tea Parties, marches, and so on. They will either have influence or be wiped out economically and socially. It should be noted that in the rare event that C raises any objection or complaint, he/she is criticized by government and their media lackeys as a member of an “unruly mob,” too unsophisticated to understand what the elites know is good for society.

The liberals’ conception of fairness is “equality” which, if it were realized, would result in all being impoverished in every way. We already have too much of the socialists’ “trickle-up poverty.”

Most Americans really do not mind paying taxes for the legitimate functions, i.e., constitutional responsibilities, of government, but are not nearly so much in favor of the socialist welfare state, and the enabling of people addicted to irresponsible behavior. The main people in favor of the welfare state are those who would receive benefits, those who would administer the system, certain politicians, and those who want to be helpful, but neglect to consider the social and human costs, as well as the economic costs of government social welfare. That said, almost all agree that a (at least) minimal safety net is needed to help those who are actually unable to support themselves. The problem arises when this is exaggerated.

As for government relief efforts, one might point to the government’s efforts after Hurricane Katrina. No, I don’t mean FEMA’s slow response at the beginning, but their continuing efforts to provide help for years afterward to people who should have been left to care for themselves sooner. Also, while the Katrina victims were truly suffering, many other people were suffering in an equally bad or worse way, who received no government help whatsoever, nor did they ask for any.

Similarly, the families of those lost in the 9/11 attacks were (I think) very generously compensated by the government. Money can’t replace a lost loved one, but on any given day, a number of people die tragically and their families get nothing from the government, nor do they ask for anything.

I don’t mean to suggest that it was wrong to want to help these people, but that it should be seen in perspective.

Government entitlements that are well-established threaten to greatly damage our economy in future years, because these obligations are unsustainable and can never finally be met. In addition, they unjustly burden the taxpayers every year. Younger payers of these taxes cannot realistically expect to benefit from these programs. They are among the forgotten men and women.

Conclusion, Again Quoting Sumner
“It is plain enough that the Forgotten Man and the Forgotten Woman are the very life and substance of society. They are the ones who ought to be first and always remembered. They are always forgotten by sentimentalists, philanthropists, reformers, enthusiasts, and every description of speculator in sociology, political economy, or political science. If a student of any of these sciences ever comes to understand the position of the Forgotten Man and to appreciate his true value, you will find such student an uncompromising advocate of the strictest scientific thinking on all social topics, and a cold and hard-hearted skeptic towards all artificial schemes of social amelioration….” [4]

[1] William Graham Sumner biography,, at

[2] William Graham Sumner, “The Forgotten Man,” 1883, The Forgotten Man and Other Essays, The Online Library of Liberty, at

[3] Henry Hazlitt, Economics in One Lesson, Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2008. Originally published by Harper & Brothers, 1946, page 179

[4] Sumner, see [2].

Photo: Portrait of William Graham Sumner from The Warren J. Samuels Portrait Collection at Duke University. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 License.