23 April 2010

Article: William Graham Sumner: Against Democracy, Plutocracy, and Imperialism

H.A. Scott Trask, "William Graham Sumner: Against Democracy, Plutocracy, and Imperialism" ("Journal of Libertarian Studies", 18 [4], fall 2004: pp. 1-27).

The article can be read free of charge here:


Excerpts: "Pioneering sociologist William Graham Sumner (1840-1910) was a prolific and astute historian of the early American republic. His work is informed by both his classical liberalism and his understanding of economics. [...] Sumner's political insights can be found throughout his histories and biographies, but [...] [c]onsidering them together, it is possible to reconstruct Sumner's political thought. This reconstruction reveals that Sumner was a first-rate diagnostician of the vices and flaws endemic to modern democracy, and that he saw with remarkable prevision how it would develop into the twentieth century. [...] Democracy is more than a term for a certain type of government; it is [...] an ideology, a quasi-religious faith, a 'superstition,' and it is false. Its two foundational dogmas – human equality and social atomization – have no support in human nature or experience. [...]

"The advance of civilization has been marked at every stage by an increase in inequality, social differentiation, and complexity. The principle of one-man one-vote, by giving no political recognition to differences in intelligence and wealth among persons, to the natural divisions within society, or to the existence of classes, is unjust, and can only lead to laws that are unjust and unwise. He also questioned the democratic dogma that the same form of government was suitable for all kinds of different societies and collectivities, without regard to their level of education, industrial development, and internal diversity. [...] Because Sumner rejected the moralistic, equalitarian, and atomistic dogmas upon which democracy rested, he was not in favor of extending the suffrage to ex-slaves or to women. He denied that either group could claim a moral right to vote, as he denied that anyone had such a right. [...]

"There is no reason to believe that democracy would prove friendlier to liberty than would monarchy, aristocracy, or other forms of elitist rule. [...] If political power be vested in the masses, '[t]hey will commit abuse, if they can and dare, just as others have done.' Ruling elites have misused their power for selfish ends because it was in their nature to do so. The people share the same nature. Greed, selfishness, and other 'vices are confined to no nation, class, or age.' [...] The theory behind extending the suffrage to all adult males was that this would ensure that legislation was framed to benefit the interests of all, rather than of the few. Sumner demonstrated in his historical studies that it did not work out that way. [...] 'The fate of modern democracy is to fall into subjection to plutocracy.' The term plutocracy [...] meant a type of government in which effective control rested with men of wealth who sought to use political means to increase their wealth. Sumner believed that there is no form of government better suited to their control than democracy. [...] The plutocrats have [...] no qualms about flattering, lying to, or bribing the masses. [...]

"At election time, the voters are given a choice between two candidates who may stand for essentially the same thing, or nothing. [...] [G]iven that the nature of democracy is to throw off all limitations upon government power, elections become 'struggles for power – war between the two parties' for control of the state. [...] One election is hardly over before the intrigue and planning for the next one begins. [...] Party platforms are full of 'empty phrases and Janus-faced propositions,' and often 'two contradictory propositions are combined in the same sentence, or a non-proposition is so stated that each man may read there just what will suit his own notions.' [...] The object of political campaigning is not to educate the public at all, but to energize one's supporters and win over by means of deception the non-committed middle. [...] No idea more annoyed Sumner than the superstition that democratic elections are a magic elixir from which flow liberty, justice, and wise governance. [...]

"Sumner feared that American 'democracy' would grow even worse by becoming paternal while not ceasing to be plutocratic. Plutocracy would prove to be the parent of paternalism [...] such as limitations on the length of the working day, unemployment insurance, government health care, and other means of providing for economic and social 'security.' The plutocrats may conclude that extending such benefits is the price they must pay for retaining power and their own lucrative privileges, while the masses will regard paternalism as their right to a share in the spoils of the state. Sumner condemned the incipient welfare state as incompatible with freedom and inimical to liberty. Those citizens who favor it are hypocrites who clamor for security with the same insistence and sense of entitlement as they demand freedom and equality. [...] There was also a danger that 'democratic' government would enact moral reforms or try to alter the structure of society. [...] 'The taxing power is especially something after which the reformer's finger always itches,' as it offers endless potential for rewarding certain behaviors and punishing others. [...]

"The Bush doctrine – American world dominion is justified by her divine mission to spread freedom and democracy – is not new. The Spanish-American War and its imperial aftermath were justified on the same grounds. Sumner noted how a senator had claimed that the United States would occupy the Philippines only long enough to teach them self-government. [...] If America attempts 'to be schoolmistress to others, it will shrivel up into the same vanity and self-conceit,' and be the object of the same loathing and hatred as the other imperial powers. Moral imperialism is as 'false and wrong' as any other kind of imperialism, for it violates freedom and self-government. The nation that says, 'We know what is good for you better than you know yourself and we are going to make you do it' cares nothing for liberty or national self-determination, since liberty 'means leaving people to live out their own lives in their own way.' It is also a recipe for endless intervention and perpetual war, as the subsequent history of the United States demonstrated. [...]

"Sumner's final judgment on nineteenth-century American democracy was that it had failed to secure liberty or good government, and it would do worse in the next century. Who was to blame? He blamed the people. 'The root of all our troubles at present and in the future is in the fact that the people fails of what was assumed about it and attributed to it.' The people complain about the politicians, about the special interests, and about the power of corporations to corrupt the political process. But who elected the politicians? Who makes up the special interests? Who elected corruptible legislatures and presidents? 'He who rules is responsible, be it Tsar, Pope, Emperor, Aristocracy, Oligarchy, or Demos.' The 'people is altogether at fault. It has not done its first duty in the premises, and therefore the whole system has gone astray.' [...] What is [our] destiny? A paternalistic, plutocratic, imperial state, in which freedom and individuality will slowly suffocate and civilization coarsen and die. A century of war and collectivism has vindicated Sumner's pessimism, and it appears that the twentieth century has bequeathed even worse to the twenty-first."

H. Arthur Scott Trask, PhD, an independent historian, is an Adjunct Scholar at the libertarian Ludwig von Mises Institute.

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