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Remembering the Forgotten Man
by Gary M. Galles 11/7/07

William Graham Sumner was described by one writer as “The Gilded Age’s most renowned teacher of social science and indefatigable defender of [classical] liberalism.”  A follower of Adam Smith and professor of political and social science at Yale for 37 years, he consistently defended the “organic” social order individuals created by their own actions against the “artificial or mechanical” conception of society held by social engineers.  Those works include What Social Classes Owe To Each Other (1883), Protectionism: the -Ism Which Teaches That Waste Makes Wealth (1885), The Challenge of Facts and Other Essays (1914), and his most famous book, The Forgotten Man and Other Essays (1918).

Given that America has “progressed” much further along a path Sumner recognized and fought against a century ago, it is worth revisiting his insights in honor of his October 30 birthday.  His condemnation of “any scheme which aims to gain, not by the legitimate fruits of industry and enterprise, but by extorting from somebody a part of his product,” expressed in terms of “the forgotten man,” is as important now as it has ever been.

Gary M. Galles

Mr. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University. [go to Galles index]


The Forgotten Man

“...the characteristic of all social doctors is, that they fix their minds on some man or group of men whose case appeals to the sympathies and the imagination, and they plan remedies addressed to the particular trouble...they ignore all the effects on other members of society than the ones they have in view.”

“Now, we never can annihilate a penalty. We can only divert it from the head of the man who has incurred it to the heads of others who have not incurred it. A vast amount of "social reform" consists in just this operation.”

“...government produces nothing at all...the State cannot get a cent for any man without taking it from some other man...”

“...the government gives a license to certain interests to go out and encroach on others.”

“...to lift one man up we push another down...The beneficiaries are selected by favoritism...Those who suffer a corresponding depression by the interference are the independent and self-reliant, who once more are forgotten or passed over; and the friends of humanity once more appear, in their zeal to help somebody, to be trampling on those who are trying to help themselves.”

“The industrious and sober workman, who is mulcted of a percentage of his day's wages...is the one who bears the penalty. But he is the Forgotten Man...never noticed, because he has behaved himself, fulfilled his contracts, and asked for nothing.”

“There always are two parties. The second one is always the Forgotten Man...He will be found to be worthy, industrious, independent, and self-supporting. He is not, technically, "poor" or "weak"; he minds his own business, and makes no complaint. Consequently the philanthropists never think of him, and trample on him...the working-man needs no improvement in his condition except to be freed from the parasites who are living on him.”

“The type and formula of most schemes of philanthropy or humanitarianism is this: A and B put their heads together to decide what C shall be made to do for D. The radical vice of all these schemes...is that C is not allowed a voice in the matter, and his position, character, and interests, as well as the ultimate effects on society through C's interests, are entirely overlooked. I call C the Forgotten Man.”


The Forgotten Man leads toward Socialism

“The first instinct of modern man is to get a law passed to forbid or prevent what, in his wisdom, he disapproves.”

“The agents who are to direct the State action are, of course, the reformers and philanthropists.  Their schemes, therefore, are always reduced to this type--that A and B decide what C shall do for D.”

“...immense mischief...has been done by sentimental economists and social philosophers who have thought it their professional duty, not to investigate and teach the truth, but to dabble in philanthropy...in pursuit of whims and dreams and impossible desires...”

“The evils of society are to a great extent the result of the dogmatism and self-interest of statesmen, philosophers, and ecclesiastics who...assumed that they could organize society as they chose…”

“...it is the greatest folly of which a man can be capable, to sit down with a slate and pencil to plan out a new social world.”

“The socialist...thinks that we can organize society as we like and that an organization can be devised in which poverty and misery shall disappear...Hence if anything is disagreeable or hard in the present state of society, it follows, on that view, that the task of organizing society has been imperfectly and badly performed, and that it needs to be done over again.”

“If any one ever believed that some ‘form of government’ could be found which would run itself and turn out the pure results of abstract peace, justice, and righteousness without any trouble to anybody, he may well be dissatisfied.”

“...there are no socialistic schemes yet proposed, of any sort, which do not, upon analysis, turn out to be projects for curing poverty and misery by making those who have share with those who have not.”

“Socialism is no new thing. In one form or another it is to be found throughout all history... the concrete expression of which is poverty and misery.”

“Socialists are filled with the enthusiasm of equality. Every scheme of theirs for securing equality has destroyed liberty.”

“...whenever we get paternalized we only get policed.”

“If it is true, then, that a man is born with rights, he comes into the world with claims on somebody besides his parents. Against whom does he hold such rights?...if men have rights by birth, these rights must hold against their fellow-men and must mean that somebody else is to spend his energy to sustain the existence of the persons so born. What then becomes of the natural rights of the one whose energies are to be diverted from his own interests?”

“...the finished socialistic doctrine...a man has a natural right to whatever he needs, and that the measure of his claims is the wishes which he wants fulfilled. If, then, he has need, who is bound to satisfy it for him? Who holds the obligation corresponding to his right? It must be the one who possesses what will satisfy that need, or else the state which can take the possession from those who have earned and saved it, and give it to him who needs it and who, by the hypothesis, has not earned and saved it.”

“...it is plain to see that the only equality which could be reached [by socialism] would be that men should be all equal to each other when they were all equal to swine.”


Liberty Protects the Forgotten Man

“...existence produces inequalities between men...If, then, there be liberty, men get from her just in proportion to their works...If we do not like it, and if we try to amend it, there is only one way in which we can do it...We can take the rewards from those who have done better and give them to those who have done worse. We shall thus lessen the inequalities. We shall favor the survival of the unfittest, and we shall accomplish this by destroying liberty...”

“The condition for the complete and regular action of the force of competition is liberty. Liberty means the security given to each man that, if he employs his energies to sustain the struggle on behalf of himself and those he cares for, he shall dispose of the produce exclusively as he chooses. It is impossible to know whence any definition or criterion of justice can be derived, if it is not deduced from this view of things; or if it is not the definition of justice that each shall enjoy the fruit of his own labor and self-denial, and of injustice that the idle and the industrious, the self-indulgent and the self-denying, shall share equally in the product. Aside from the a priori speculations of philosophers who have tried to make equality an essential element in justice, the human race has recognized, from the earliest times, the above conception of justice as the true one, and has founded upon it the right of property.”

“For three hundred years now men have been trying to understand and realize liberty. Liberty is not the right or chance to do what we choose; there is no such liberty as that on earth. No man can do as he chooses...the civilized man must earn his living...”

“What we mean by liberty is civil liberty, or liberty under law; and this means the guarantees of law that a man shall not be interfered with while using his own powers for his own welfare…that nation has the freest institutions in which the guarantees of peace for the laborer and security for the capitalist are the highest.”

“What civil liberty does is to turn the competition of man with man from violence and brute force into an industrial competition under which men vie with one another…by industry, energy, skill, frugality, prudence, temperance, and other industrial virtues. Under this changed order of things the inequalities are not done away with...but it is now the man of the highest training and not the man of the heaviest fist who gains the highest reward.”

“Equality before the law…is one of the cardinal principles of civil liberty, because it leaves each man to run the race of life for himself as best he can. The state stands neutral but benevolent. It does not undertake to aid some and handicap others...If the state should attempt this It would make itself the servant of envy. I am entitled to make the most I can of myself without hindrance from anybody, but I am not entitled to any guarantee that I shall make as much of myself as somebody else makes of himself.”

“...the institutions which we have inherited were invented to guard liberty against the encroachments of a powerful monarch or aristocracy...Institutions must now be devised to guard civil liberty against popular majorities, and this necessity arises first in regard to the protection of property, the first and greatest function of government and element in civil liberty.”

“Now, the great reason why all these enterprises which begin by saying to somebody else, ‘We know what is good for you better than you know yourself and we are going to make you do it,’ are false and wrong is that they violate liberty...the reason why liberty, of which we Americans talk so much, is a good thing is that it means leaving people to live out their own lives in their own way, while we do the same.”

“...although we indulge in rhetoric about political liberty, nevertheless we find ourselves bound tight...”

“If we believe in liberty, as an American principle, why do we not stand by it?”


William Graham Sumner used the device of “the forgotten man” to highlight the inequity and damage to liberty that routinely comprises much of what government does.  Unfortunately, we have overlooked his wisdom, turning him into an all but forgotten man as well.  But he deserves renewed attention, if we wish to reinvigorate the liberty he fought so long and hard to defend. CRO


copyright 2007 Gary M. Galles



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