Neoclassical Liberal Political Thought Research Paper

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I. Introduction

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II. Herbert Spencer

III. William Graham Sumner

IV. Conclusion

I. Introduction

In the 19th century, liberals responded to the changing economic and social conditions associated with industrialization and urbanization in a variety of ways. One group of liberals argued for the continuing relevance of classical liberalism’s emphasis on limited government whereas another group of liberals began to make the case for an expansive role for government. Although both groups championed the importance of individual liberty (and thus firmly insisted on their own philosophical legitimacy as the “true” liberals), the two groups increasingly diverged on such matters as the role of the state in promoting liberty, the optimal reach of government intervention in the economy, and the appropriate governmental response to social problems such as poverty. The “new” classical liberals, that is, the neoclassical liberals, argued that the liberalism that Locke had envisioned in his 1690 Second Treatise, as they interpreted it, continued to be the best guide for evaluating and directing political practice, but the second group— which came to be known as welfare liberals and which included writers such as T. H. Green (1836–1882)— called for a more broadly regulative government than Locke’s limited “umpire” state (see Ball & Dagger, 2009; Kramnick, 1998).

This research paper discusses the defining elements of neoclassical liberalism—advocacy of (a) limited government and (b) maximization of individualism or individual liberty, with individualism or liberty being defined as that which is realized when self-interested persons make decisions for themselves in the absence of governmental interference. A major focus of the discussion is the political writings of British theorist Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) and American theorist William Graham Sumner (1840–1910). Spencer and Sumner were leading neoclassical liberals of the 19th century, and a close examination of their writings reveals a complex interplay of 17th-century Lockean ideals with 19th-century economic and intellectual developments.

II. Herbert Spencer

British philosopher and sociologist Herbert Spencer has often been called both a neoclassical liberal and a social Darwinist. The latter designation is somewhat problematic, not because Spencer did not think in evolutionary terms, but because he began applying evolutionary perspectives in his writings before Darwin published his own findings. Indeed, Spencer, rather than Darwin, first employed the phrase “survival of the fittest” (Offer, 1994, xvii–xviii).

In The Proper Sphere of Government, Spencer (1843/1994d) argued that individuals have natural rights to life and property. With respect to the latter, Spencer, like Locke, looked to both religious and historical sources to support his claim for the naturalness of private property and for its existence as a “necessary means” of meeting human needs. By “natural,” Spencer, as Locke previously, referred to rights that individuals enjoyed by virtue of their humanity, not as grants or gifts from governments. Indeed, Spencer believed that these natural rights to life and property were antecedent to government and that it was for the purpose of better securing such rights that governments were created. Had governments not been formed, Spencer elaborated, the weak would be vulnerable to threats by the strong, and strong individuals would be at risk for incursions on their property by groups. In response to such threats, individuals joined together to create governments to protect their natural rights to life and property, Spencer concluded.

The origin of government pointed to its purpose. Created to better secure natural rights, government possessed no legitimate purpose beyond this delimited objective. Justice, Spencer (1843/1994d) insisted, was “comprehended” by nothing more than the defense of natural rights. In a later essay (1881), he reaffirmed the definition of justice given in The Proper Sphere of Government by referring to justice as the prohibition of actions that “trespass” against another.

Spencer’s understanding of government’s role was logically consistent with his assertion that human existence was subject to the workings of natural laws. Spencer (1843/1994d) taught that human life, like the life of “every animate creature” (p. 48), consisted of the interactions of needs and responses to needs. Living beings had immediate and long-term needs and possessed also “instincts” that impelled them toward the satisfaction of needs. If the environment were altered to thwart the instinctual or organic response, or if it were manipulated to separate the response from its natural outcome, the creature’s existence would be undermined. Thus, whether the being in question happened to be a human being or “the meanest zoophyte,” its natural instincts should not be artificially disrupted. In the case of humans, instinct and intelligence, if consulted, prompted individuals to preserve themselves through multiple “endeavors” (pp. 48–49). In his essay “The Sins of Legislators” (1884/1994e), Spencer explicitly linked this process of instinctual or organic development with evolutionary language that posited “the beneficent working of the survival of the fittest” and cautioned that “aid given to the inferior by the superior” would “enable the inferior to multiply” and produce “mischief” (pp. 131, 128; see also Spencer, 1881, p. 82).

It was nature’s law that individuals who were adept in pursuing their self-interest through self-preserving “endeavors” would be rewarded whereas those who neglected such would suffer. It was not necessary—on the contrary, it was harmful—for governments to attempt to “interfere” with the workings of this natural law. Governments were not, for example, to save people from the consequences of their own poor decisions, nor were governments to direct or guide individual philosophical or religious beliefs. As Spencer (1843/1994d) put it, government existed to protect life and property but not to regulate trade, provide public education, promote religion, provide assistance to the poor, or maintain systems of public transportation. To do more than protect natural rights was to treat citizens as children. To try to “mould” people—as though people were “dough”—to act in ways that transcended nature’s dynamics, or through one of the “Acts of Parliament” to legislate as though humans could be “twisted” into any shape desired by government actors, was to inappropriately expand the role of government beyond the mere protection of natural rights.

Spencer recognized that some individuals could be said to experience “suffering” under the conditions prevailing under limited government. In his essay “The Coming Slavery” (1884/1994a), he addressed directly the question of whether public assistance—that is, an expansive state authority equipped to implement social welfare programs to help the suffering and the needy—might not be called for in such cases. His conclusion reaffirmed his argument for limited government and his opposition to welfare-oriented public policies. He offered five specific arguments in support of his conclusion. One, suffering— or the desire to avoid it—often proved to be a compelling motive to work hard as an individual, and thus suffering, in and of itself, did not constitute something that merited automatic eradication or prevention. In short, “much suffering is curative” (p. 90), Spencer reasoned. Two, even if one were to decide that suffering constituted an “evil,” evils were not necessarily preventable; therefore, limited government continued to be justifiable even in the presence of suffering. Three, even if some evils did not prove intractable to those who would seek to eliminate them, it was not logical to assume that the mere fact of intractability was the equivalent of establishing a positive obligation on the part of government to institute preventative policies. Four, once governments began to address suffering, a precedent for doing so would be established, and public expectations for continued assistance would be generated; consequently, the transformation of government beyond its original purpose of the preservation of basic natural rights would grow uncontrollably. Fifth, “officialism” would come to characterize the government. Officialism was Spencer’s term to describe a highly regulative state, a state—insofar as it was regulatory rather than limited—that had become so large and intrusive as to infringe on the natural rights to life and property, the very rights that government had been created to protect.

In many of his works, Spencer acknowledged that the concept of protection—that is, protecting natural rights— was highly interpretable and subject to a variety of readings. One could argue that Spencer’s neoclassical liberal theory was an exercise in searching for ever more precise and narrow ways to define protection so that only the most minimal level of governmental activity possible would be allowable. Spencer (1843/1994d) crafted his narrow definition of protection, first, by pointing out that the notion of a “general good” was intellectually flawed. It was not compelling, he asserted, to define the protection of natural rights as the entailment of a general good. The notion “general good,” he continued, was so broad as to be unusable: It could mean whatever the person using the phrase wanted it to mean, and thus, in reality, it had no reliable meaning. It was erroneous, therefore, to say that government, as part of its duty to protect natural rights, had a general obligation to promote a “general good.”

In addition, the proposition that government should promote a general good was mistaken insofar as it rested on erroneous assumptions about human nature and the human capacity to preserve the self. The argument that protection should be interpreted broadly enough to encompass the idea that government should actively promote or produce the “general good” as part of its protection of natural rights rested on the assumption, Spencer (1843/1994d) claimed, of human incomprehension and incompetence as regards self-interest. A stance such as the above accepted the false proposition that good outcomes were unrealizable in the absence of governmental programs designed to directly promote them. Spencer tried to strengthen his case with reference to religious examples. Humans were not so irredeemably one-dimensional, he argued, as to universally reject religion outright in the absence of a state-sponsored church, nor was Christianity so unappealing as to require the laws of the state to force it on the citizenry, nor were unbelievers so innately corrupt as to pose a threat to the natural rights of others by the mere fact of their religious nonbelief and nonaffiliation. Good outcomes—the nonviolation of the natural rights to life and property—could thus ensue without the expansion of state authority into the sphere of religious regulation in the name of serving the “general good.”

Spencer (1843/1994d) also pointed to the example of public health regulations. He argued that advocates for government-sponsored public health protections were assuming citizen incapacity. Such reformers were advocating government involvement in the provision of heath care services, Spencer charged, because they saw women and men as too ill-equipped to make rational, discerning choices for themselves. He compared the consumer who would sacrifice quality for lower cost when selecting a pharmacist to one who would do likewise in selecting a watch repairer: In both cases, the individual was said by Spencer to be capable of evaluating risks and rewards and stood in no need of a regulatory state to protect him or her from poor choices. If suboptimal choices were made, the individual in question would have to live with the outcome of having exercised “his own free will” (p. 47), whether making decisions that failed to fix a watch or failed to provide safe, effective drugs.

Finally, Spencer (1843/1994d) critiqued the idea of active government promotion of the “general good” by concluding that one should construe the violation of natural rights in what he labeled “positive” terms. That is, government’s task was to protect natural rights against direct (positive) violations, not against indirect (negative) effects or by-products. To call indirect effects “infringements” was to fail to understand the meaning of rights per se. Spencer used economic examples to establish his distinction. What if, he reasoned, an individual claimed that his or her impoverishment constituted a violation of his or her natural rights; if such a claim possessed credibility, the state—in its duty to defend natural rights—might be understood as having an obligation to enact laws for the provision of economic assistance. However, such claims would lack credibility as long as violation was understood as that which was constituted by a direct act (positive act) rather than as an unintended, indirect act. An individual suffering from poverty, Spencer (1843/1994d) went on to suggest, was simply experiencing the effects of nature’s “self-adjusting principle,” not a positive violation of natural rights (p. 6). The “self-adjusting principle,” Spencer explained, referred to nature’s law whereby productive activity was rewarded and unproductive activity was not. Spencer upheld the benefits of the principle in the case of individuals suffering poverty as a result of their own bad decisions as well as those suffering as a result of bad luck. In neither case did Spencer believe that government should step in and provide assistance to the poor in the name of “general good.”

Indeed, to enact laws for public assistance was to set in motion a series of deleterious effects, Spencer (1884/1994e) warned. From this misconstrued notion of government’s proper role emanated problems ranging from (a) the undermining of incentives both for hard work and for voluntary charity extended to the hardworking- but-down-on-their-luck poor to (b) the confiscation of the wealth generated by the productive members of society. Taxes to fund public assistance programs would fall not only on the affluent, Spencer noted, but also on the productive members of the working class; resentment toward such confiscatory programs would foster antipathy to the poor generally, without distinguishing between those who were poor as a result of misfortune beyond their ability to address and those poor as a result of ignoring nature’s laws regarding individual responsibility for self-preservation. Moreover, individuals who could look to government for public assistance could be misled into thinking they should ignore nature’s “self-adjusting principle” whereby those who care for themselves progress while those who shun this principle do not. Moreover, Spencer (1843/1994d) calculated that “nine cases out of ten” (p. 17) involving poor people, on inspection, would reveal that the poverty in question was merited, either by the actions of the poor themselves or by the actions of their parents. With regard to the latter, it was beneficial, Spencer wrote, for the consequences of parental misdeeds to be felt by children in order to give the children a compelling incentive not to follow in the missteps of their parents.

Not only was government to refrain from creating antipoverty programs, but government was also to abstain from providing for public education. Spencer’s (1843/ 1994d) neoclassical liberal opposition to public education was based on a variety of arguments. On the simplest level, he maintained that it made no greater sense for a state to provide “intellectual food” (p. 33) than literal food to its citizens, citizens who were responsible for feeding themselves as adults and responsible for feeding their children if they were parents. In addition, he rejected calls for state-sponsored education on the grounds that such education would necessarily, he believed, introduce a “uniform” education on a populace with diverse needs, interests, backgrounds, and capabilities. He also predicted that public teachers would be less responsive to parents and less concerned with achieving high standards than would teachers who did not look to the state as their employers. A state-directed educational system would thus impede national progress. Additionally, however, Spencer raised the question of whether England’s prevailing educational theory was sound. If it proved to be deficient, he asserted, to further support that educational theory by providing it state sanction would exacerbate— not rectify—existing problems. What incurred his scorn was the following: an approach to education biased in favor of classical schooling. Specifically, Spencer believed that England’s approach to educating its children was oriented toward “dead languages” and old pedagogy. That which Spencer (1843/1994d) termed “dead languages” (p. 38; i.e., classics) were taught at the expense of modern science and modern ideas. Any progress in moving educational methods and curriculum in the direction of teaching modern “real knowledge” would be stalled if the present curriculum were turned into a public education program with state support behind it, Spencer warned. Moreover, as with other hierarchical institutions, a centralized educational system would promote passivity in its students and would also impose tax burdens on the entire population, regardless of agreement or disagreement with its principles and regardless of whether, among those taxed, there might be individuals with no children in the public school system.

Spencer’s (1843/1994d) neoclassical liberal vision of minimal government had implications for foreign policy and international relations as well as for domestic policies such as education and economics. In short, Spencer considered war-making powers suspect, and he concluded that only wars to defend against direct attacks on a state’s sovereignty were justifiable. Other types of wars were entirely illegitimate for the same reason that government encroachments into domestic domains were unjustified. In both foreign and domestic policy arenas, governments that reached beyond the limited role of defending natural rights were exceeding their appropriate authority. Spencer believed that a study of the history of warfare revealed that most wars were “evils” (p. 23). He compared war to an intoxicant that had the ability to stupefy the consumer— in this case an entire nation—into thinking that war could bring prosperity and security rather than debt and death. Whatever the rhetoric of politicians, Spencer continued, most wars represented ambitious schemes for “invasions and conquests” (p. 23). To prevent the evil of war, it was necessary to handcuff politicians, to “confine” their powers to the narrowly defined protection of justice discussed above. He urged his native England to set an example for other nations in abjuring war, and he cautioned England not to wait for international consensus before renouncing all wars other than those fought for defensive purposes.

Not surprisingly, given his position on war, Spencer (1843/1994d) was steadfast in maintaining his support for limited government against those who championed colonialism. Indeed, his neoclassical liberalism had a strong anticolonialism element. Spencer argued that states could not be both limited in size and scope and simultaneously committed to the pursuit of colonial expansion. Pointing to the examples of Canada, the United States, and India, Spencer also argued that colonies had imposed costs on England while creating profits only for the “monopolists” and “aristocrats” who invested in them.

For Spencer (1884/1994c), whether in foreign or domestic applications, liberalism was a philosophy that sided with “individual freedom” and against “state-coercion” (p. 66). In his 1884 essay “The New Toryism,” Spencer discussed at length his understanding of the word and the philosophy liberalism. In this essay, he made the claim that liberalism across the ages had been animated by the goal of reducing “the coercive power of the ruler over the subject” (p. 65). Historically, this goal had guided efforts to achieve judicial independence, the establishment of habeas corpus rights, and the emergence of a Bill of Rights. In each case, liberty was understood in reference to what Spencer termed “negatively coercive” acts; that is, liberals supported a definition of liberty whereby liberty was limited only by the negative prohibition on “aggressing” against another party. In this understanding of liberty, an individual was considered free as long as he or she was not being restrained by government, and it was understood that government would impose no restraint unless the individual initiated an aggressive move against another party. Liberty had not been understood in relation to “positively coercive” acts, that is, liberty had not been conceptualized as something one was required by government to surrender in order for the government to compel the individual to provide positive support for a public good.

Spencer (1884/1994c) argued that liberals in the late 19th century were suffering from doubt over whether the “negative” understanding of liberty should continue to prevail insofar as the strong monarchical form of government in England had been replaced by one of “parliamentary authority.” He responded forcefully in favor of continuing to uphold the “negative” understanding of liberty. To be specific, he argued that liberalism’s defining element was not the form of government (strong monarchy vs. strong parliament) that it sought to limit but was, rather, the commitment to limiting the power of government, whatever form government might assume. Liberal vigilance in continuing to contain governmental power within strict limits was no less urgent in a democratic age, Spencer believed, in part because of the role of political parties. Representative government was generally organized along party lines, and parties were often led by “unconscientious” individuals driven by electoral pressures for quick fixes to perceived social ills (e.g., poverty) by attempting to undo nature’s “self-adjusting principle” (Spencer, 1884/1994a, p. 93). Majority opinion was not a legitimate basis for decision making when majorities were calling for expansive government that would replace negative liberty with the “officialism” described above (Spencer, 1884/1994b). The liberalism of the present, Spencer (1884/1994c) maintained, should thus “measure” liberty by the same standard that liberalism had used in monarchical times: Liberty should be maximized, and liberty would only be maximized by the “relative paucity of the restraints it [government] imposes” on the individual (p. 77).

Spencer’s liberalism was critiqued by a number of 19thcentury socialist writers. Socialist critics’ arguments tended to challenge Spencer to see that inegalitarian economic conditions could be just as oppressive as governmental institutions. Not surprisingly, Spencer regarded such critiques as being as ill-conceived as the classical educational pedagogy to which he, as discussed above, also objected. Just as England’s schools were suffering under the “bias” of the “dead languages” of antiquity, so did socialist calls for freeing modern individuals from what socialists described as economic tyranny unconsciously draw on ancient ideas, Spencer wrote. That which Spencer considered to be a dead ancient idea was classical Greek political theory upholding the polis as a source of the individual’s very identity. The Greek ideal, as Spencer (1885/1994a) saw it, made the “individual . . . a slave to the community” (p. 103). Spencer saw socialism as an effort to implement a resurrected Greek polis ideal. Socialism was nothing short of “slavery” and was a throwback to antiquity’s celebration of the idea that the polis, or society, should be dominant in relation to the self.

Spencer’s (1884/1994e) neoclassical liberalism praised market forces—what he called “the spontaneous activities of citizens, separate or grouped” (p. 125)—for not only constituting the conditions under which individual liberty could be maximized but for also generating economic progress. Markets unleashed “men’s desires,” and individuals pursued those desires through, at their discretion, “private activities” as well as “spontaneous cooperations” to produce unprecedented agricultural, manufacturing, and technological progress. Spencer pointed to developments ranging from the invention of the telephone to modern science as due “not [to] the State” but to “the aggregate results of men’s desires” (p. 125). Indeed, states, Spencer believed, were more likely as not to have obstructed progress by regulating human activity whenever states entered into economic affairs.

In sum, Spencer’s neoclassical liberalism championed liberty, not a particular class, partisan position, or governmental structure. When “aristocrats” and “monopolists” were the opponents of liberty (as in the case of colonialism), he criticized these elite groups.When kings attacked liberty, Spencer criticized monarchy. However, when the opponents of liberty were reformers advocating for working-class benefits or parliamentarians using a reform-oriented rhetoric, Spencer criticized reformers and parliamentarians.

III. William Graham Sumner

One of Yale’s most popular 19th-century professors, U.S. sociologist William Graham Sumner, is, like Spencer, generally regarded as both a neoclassical liberal and a social Darwinist (Hofstadter, 1955). Sumner’s neoclassical liberal political theory was given explicit expression in his 1883 publication titled What Social Classes Owe to Each Other. In this work, Sumner analyzed government not only in terms of its role but also in reference to what he regarded as its essence. The role of government, he contended, was nothing other than the protection of “the property of men and the honor of women” (Sumner, 1883/2007, p. 58). That is, governments were “contractual” and “rationalistic” responses to individual needs. Governments were instituted to improve the security of life and property, and, as such, governments existed for reducing threats against persons and property. The government, in keeping with neoclassical liberalism’s logic, was to serve this minimalist purpose in a very strict fashion and was, in particular, to avoid “sentiment” toward those less fortunate or those who might need coaxing out of their present choices. To Sumner, any government intrusion into “sumptuary” or “moral” areas for “legislation” (e.g., prohibitions on alcohol consumption or taxes on items in order to curb the consumption of those items) was unjustified. Legitimate governments were neither “paternal” (providing economic or moral safekeeping to citizens) nor “protectionist” (protecting individuals from the effects of competition or from the effects of their own poor choices). For Sumner, anyone who would argue convincingly in favor of expanding the role of government beyond its minimalist scope would have to prove that it would be “more advantageous” to those who would “bear the weight” of the expansion (e.g., those taxed to support government programs) than would “complete noninterference by the State” (p. 82). Not having encountered any such proof, Sumner concluded that, in maintaining a strict contractualist, minimalist government, society was best promoting “the self-reliance and dignity of a free man” (p. 21).

Moreover, for Sumner (1883/2007), states or governments were not an embodiment of some larger-than-life repository of wisdom or expertise that could be called on to mandate superior planning and oversight for societal interactions. States were “in practice” nothing more than collections of “obscure clerks” who, in democratic republics such as the United States, were put in their positions “in a very haphazard way by the majority” (p. 12). For example, states did not have the wisdom to “make men happy” but had only the purpose of providing a secure setting in which individuals made for themselves lives that were happy or not (p. 25). Like Spencer, Sumner applied his neoclassical liberal commitment to limited government in the area of foreign as well as domestic policy, and like Spencer, Sumner criticized “imperialist” and expansionary military ventures as inconsistent with liberalism (Sumner, 1899).

Sumner’s advocacy of minimal government was based on his understanding of nature, rights, individualism, and science. With respect to nature, Sumner’s neoclassical liberalism rested on four observations. First, nature was characterized by a scarcity of goods, for which individuals were in competitive struggle. Sumner (1883/2007) conceptualized nature as having no “pity” for the unfortunate. He described human existence as “naturally” characterized by “hardships” and “struggles,” struggles in which positive outcomes are guaranteed to no one (p. 17). In illustrating his thesis, Sumner wrote of two hypothetical “neighbors” and set up an imagined scenario in which one neighbor turned out to be more successful than the other; Sumner then remarked that the less successful neighbor had no legitimate basis for ill will toward his more successful peer because the former could not rightfully “blame” another for what (unequal outcomes in a struggle for scarce goods) was only natural.

Second, Sumner’s belief in nature and natural struggle did not lead him to deny a role to cultural and historical influences on human life. As cultures evolved, new ideas accompanied new ways of organizing social life. For example, Sumner (1883/2007) pointed to modernity’s repudiation of feudal notions of inherited social status. A careful student of history, he argued, could see that the neoclassical liberal theory of limited government was itself a modern invention that represented a rupture with medieval ideas that had supported the expansive powers of elites over subjected populations. “The notion of a free state,” he observed, “is entirely modern” (p. 24). That is, Sumner’s emphasis on the inescapability of nature’s forces was put forward in a context that also recognized societal development (e.g., the movement from feudalism to capitalism) as having played a part in shaping societal ideas and individual choices. That he attributed an influence on human interactions to culture—not to nature alone—has led some scholars to suggest that Sumner’s liberalism owed less of an intellectual debt to 19th-century evolutionary science and social Darwinism than has often been assumed (Smith, 1979).

Third, nature imposed penalties for poor choices, and poor choices were defined as those that inhibited long-term security, Sumner taught. Any individual, Sumner asserted, was capable of making poor choices. Indeed, Sumner stated explicitly that “human nature” was replete with “vices and passions,” and he named among them such vices as “cupidity, lust, vindictiveness, ambition, and vanity” (Sumner, 1883/ 2007, p. 23).Any individual in any age, he elaborated, could manifest any such vice. However, some individuals followed “reason and conscience” and thus overcame temptations to indulge vices; such individuals chose to practice “self-denial” and “self-control.” Sumner referred to those who exhibited such salutary behaviors and attitudes as the “elites.” Those who indulged vices would, if a natural competitive struggle ensued, be more likely to succumb than those who practiced self-control. Sumner offered the example of a “drunkard” and the example of a gambler. If left unobstructed, nature would “remove” those who rendered themselves vulnerable through their indulgence of vices. Comments such as these contributed to Sumner’s reputation as a theorist who was no less a social Darwinist than a classical liberal.

Fourth, Sumner (1883/2007) argued that natural outcomes could be skewed in terms of their directions but could not be obviated altogether. Sumner contended that one could “divert” a consequence, but one could not preclude it. He pointed again to the example of the drunkard. If a drunkard were to be spared the natural consequences of his lack of self-control, the penalty for drinking would, in this case, have simply been shifted to the party that made possible the sparing. For example, Sumner elaborated, were a police officer to intervene in a drunkard’s life to rescue him from the streets, any person earning a wage or salary that was taxed to pay for the police officer’s intervention was being made to endure (insofar as taxes were compulsory) the costs of the drunkard’s vice. In this instance, the drunkard was getting away with vice rather than facing the consequences of his own poor choices, and the productive tax-paying citizenry was being penalized.

Sumner (1883/2007) referred to the latter as the Forgotten Man or, occasionally, as the Forgotten Woman. Sumner characterized the Forgotten Man or Woman as productive, so productive that he or she served as an easy target for taxes needed by social reformers acting on “sentiment” for the drunkard (or other needy individuals or groups). Sumner described the Forgotten Man as forgotten in the sense that—except as a tax base—he was invisible to reformers who, out of concern for the drunkard, the gambler, the poor, or others, needed a tax source to fund reform-oriented expansive government assistance programs. The Forgotten Woman, Sumner explained, might be a seamstress whose supplies were more expensive than they would otherwise be as a result of reformers’ efforts to “protect” an industry and its workers from competition. Although such reformers might appear big-hearted and generous when one looked at their avowed concern for the vice-oriented or unfortunate people they wished to use the government to assist, such reformers were somehow, Sumner argued, unable to see the injury inflicted on the Forgotten Man by confiscatory taxes levied against his earnings and savings or the harm visited on the Forgotten Woman by the regulatory state. It would have been inconvenient for reformers to acknowledge the Forgotten Man’s or Woman’s existence, for doing so would have made it clear that reformers were not eradicating problems but were, rather, simply shifting problems and (tax or protectionist) penalties onto those who did nothing to deserve them.

In addition, private acts of charity toward a person who exhibited “shiftless” or “inefficient” attitudes or behaviors similarly skewed the direction of natural penalties, Sumner (1883/2007) believed. Just as government programs to help the “drunkard” and those like him were unjustifiable violations of the concept of minimal government and resulted in injury to the Forgotten Man and Woman, so were private disbursements of charity expenditures that, in being given to the vice indulgers, were distributed away from more productive areas of investment. Specifically, an amount given in charity to a drunkard was an amount not invested in a business to employ those—such as the Forgotten Man or Woman—who were hard working and who practiced self-control; nor was this amount contributed toward the savings of one’s own family so that the family might be better protected against the possibility of unforeseen needs.

In contrast to Spencer (and Locke) before him, Sumner (1883/2007) based his neoclassical liberal arguments in favor of minimal government, not on an appeal to the self-evident nature of natural rights, but, rather, on a critique of the concept of natural rights. Sumner argued that to say that individuals are born with natural rights tends to imply (a) an entitlement to that which is promised by the right and, further, to imply that there is (b) an obligation held by someone to recognize the right. Sumner rejected both ways of thinking about rights. If when discussing rights one were referring to nothing more than “chances,” he contended, he did accept the concept of rights. If, in saying that all individuals have the right to property, one is merely claiming nothing more than that all individuals have a chance to struggle and compete for property, Sumner could then agree with a rights-based argument. These rights or chances should be “equal,” Sumner contended, and from this equality of opportunity, “the merits of individuals” (p. 88) would determine outcomes. His neoclassical liberalism emphasized, however, the misuses to which a language of rights could be put, insofar as individuals who thought of themselves as having natural rights might automatically assume that either other individuals or the government had enforceable obligations to ensure the realization of those rights.

Sumner’s (1883/2007) individualism—that is, the belief that individual liberty should be maximized as long as it did not entail aggression against another—was put forward in a context that recognized (a) social duty and (b) group life as elements of human existence. With respect to an individual’s duty to society, Sumner maintained that each individual had a duty to care for himself and, if he had a family, to care for his family. In caring for himself and his family, the individual was meeting his social obligations in the sense that he was allowing neither himself nor his family to become a burden on others. Thus, the individual’s likely existence within a family unit was folded into Sumner’s very notion of individualism. Moreover, Sumner argued that individuals sometimes found it rational to pursue their individualism as members of nonfamilial groups, or “associations.” For example, he asserted that members of the working class might, under various conditions, find it rational to combine in “associations” or unions to compete for their respective individual economic interests, even though he believed that U.S. workers were too “independent” to provide sustained support for unions. Monopolistic industries that created “duress” for consumers or employees by reducing liberty through the curtailment of competition were opposed by Sumner (Curtis, 1969).

Sumner (1883/2007) presented his neoclassical liberalism as an approach informed by “science,” a science that dispassionately assessed natural and social forces. Sumner’s understanding of science was such that he regarded it as “impersonal” in its observations and conclusions. For example, just as an impersonal analysis of nature’s forces demonstrated the existence of competitive struggle and the enhanced survival chances for those practicing “self-control,” so did a scientific study of society demonstrate the benefits of “laissez faire.” Laissez-faire doctrine could be summed up, Sumner asserted, as “mind your own business” (p. 67) and do not try to use government to impose regulations on another person’s life. Thus, he explained, the task of social scientists was not to admonish others in the language of “ought” and sentimentality but to communicate, instead, in the language of cause and effect, analysis and explanation.

Yet Sumner (1883/2007) realized that individuals were not reducible to rational calculations and that individuals were often connected to one another by bonds of “affection” and “sympathy.” He knew, for example, that individuals might be moved by “sympathy” for another person’s situation and might, out of compassion, act to alleviate someone’s distress, even though such actions might make no sense from the viewpoint of “impersonal” scientific assessments. Viewing someone from the standpoint of sympathy yielded information that lacked the rigor of science, but such a view offered insights nonetheless, Sumner realized. Sympathy, he wrote, could point individuals in the direction of acknowledging that even “the best of us act foolishly” at times. There were circumstances in which each might gain if “we share each others’ burdens” (p. 86).

Sumner (1883/2007) did not regard neoclassical liberalism’s objective as one of universally condemning actions undertaken from sympathy, but, rather, he saw liberalism’s logic as asserting that such expressions were best conceptualized as “two party” interactions. That is, the terms and conditions of such interactions should be at the discretion of the two parties immediately engaged (e.g., between the one offering help and the one receiving help; between the one giving affection and the one receiving affection) and not mandated by a third party (e.g., the state). In short, although an individual who never felt sympathy for another would be a lamentable human being, Sumner concluded, a government that forced citizens to act on the basis of sympathy would destroy individual liberty.

IV. Conclusion

In their political writings, both Spencer and Sumner drew on 17th-century philosophical ideas (i.e., Lockean support for a limited government and for maximized individual liberty), incorporated 19th-century scientific currents (i.e., evolutionary scientific perspectives on nature as an arena of struggle), and commented on various social and political issues of the day (e.g., outdated pedagogies in the British school system in the case of Spencer and reformist demands for tax-supported social assistance programs in the case of Sumner). As theorists who assessed and responded to issues of their times, these men penned broad theoretical generalizations immediately accessible to readers across the centuries, as well as historically specific examples that may seem archaic to contemporary readers. Their theories could be bold as well as nuanced, with the former indicated perhaps by no example more telling than Spencer’s phrase “survival of the fittest” and the latter exemplified by Sumner’s acknowledgment of the utility of workers’ associations in pursuing individual self-interest and the role of sympathy in everyday human interactions. As “new” classical liberals, Spencer and Sumner shared Locke’s belief that individuals had sufficient incentives to refrain from harm to others in the absence of an expansive “big” government that existed to regulate individual choices and behaviors. Whereas Locke had pointed to the role of reason as an internal source of self-restraint, Spencer and Sumner emphasized nature’s harsh incentives, especially as reinforced by a limited government that would confine its role to the protection of private property and life from direct attacks and would not attempt to regulate out of existence—on the basis of some presumed government wisdom—the effects of what Spencer called nature’s “self-adjusting principle” and what Sumner called “laissez faire.”

While Spencer and Sumner were dominant voices within 19th-century neoclassical liberalism, the core concerns of this school of liberalism are by no means confined to these two writers. The neoclassical liberal emphasis on limiting the power of government is found also in the 19thcentury utilitarian liberalism of John Stuart Mill (1806– 1873), in the arguments of contemporary neoclassical liberal theorist Robert Nozick, and in the platforms of the Libertarian Party. In ways reminiscent of Spencer and Sumner, Mill upheld freedom of expression against the claims of governmental censors, Nozick champions a Lockean umpire state, and Libertarians advocate for the rights of individuals to claim their own sexual identity (e.g., gay rights) and to make their own reproductive choices (e.g., abortion rights). Over the centuries, the specific areas of public policy capturing the attention of neoclassical liberals have changed, but the vision of Spencer and Sumner endures. In short, although 21st-century neoclassical liberals have generally tried to soften or expunge the social- Darwinist implications of neoclassical liberal theory, contemporary advocates of the legacy of Spencer and Sumner continue to advocate on behalf of the benefits of minimal government and maximum liberty for rational self-interested individuals.


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