Monday, December 19, 2011

A and B decide on what C is going to do for D [W.G. Sumner's famous formula]

When William Graham Sumner wrote the essay The Forgotten Man he outlined a now famous formula: A and B decide on what C is going to do for D. The underlying concept is that A wants to solve a perceived problem which D is supposedly suffering from. A recruits B who is of like mind. A and B then extract something from C to give to D. The Forgotten Man being C. (1)

Sumner defined the formula as follows:

“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, from a sociological point of view, 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”. (2)

How does Sumner define The Forgotten Man?

“….the Forgotten Man and any one who wants to truly understand the matter in question must go and search for 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”. (3)

One needs to further consider A and B. Beyond A and B fancying themselves as philanthropic or humanitarians, they in practice act as third party decision makers. The “is going to do” or “made to do”, in the formula above, is the third party decision process.

What prompts A and B to think they have the presence, the knowledge, and the moral high ground to make third party decisions for others? Why must C, The Forgotten Man, need relied upon? If The Forgotten Man is self-sufficient, industrious and requires no assistance, then has not The Forgotten Man done his duty? If C, The Forgotten Man, owes some exogenous duty, would that duty not be the decision of The Forgotten Man?

The next question regarding A and B is why do they merely want to extract from C and give to D …rather than making D like C? One may want to consider that D is not like C, in the main, as D may not be industrious. That is, D likes being D. Moreover, A and B, being that A and B are in point of fact functioning as third party decision makers, may well be made up of two categories: “do-gooders” and those seeking power derived as the third party decision makers. In either case of do-gooders or power extractors, solving D’s perceived problem may well not be their aim. The do-gooder can’t feel “good” nor can the power extractor gain power, without the existence of D and the consequential “is going to do” or “made to do”, in the formula above.

The following are several observations by Sumner that might be enlightening regarding the above discussion:

…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 [social doctors] are always under the dominion of the superstition of government, and, forgetting that a government produces nothing at all, they leave out of sight the first fact to be remembered in all social discussion—that the State cannot get a cent for any man without taking it from some other man, and this latter must be a man who has produced and saved it. This latter is the Forgotten Man.

Hence the real sufferer by that kind of benevolence which consists in an expenditure of capital to protect the good-for-nothing is the industrious laborer. The latter, however, is never thought of in this connection. It is assumed that he is provided for and out of the account.

For our present purpose it is most important to notice that if we lift any man up we must have a fulcrum, or point of reaction. In society that means that to lift one man up we push another down. The schemes for improving the condition of the working classes interfere in the competition of workmen with each other. The beneficiaries are selected by favoritism, and are apt to be those who have recommended themselves to the friends of humanity by language or conduct which does not betoken independence and energy. 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 friends of humanity start out with certain benevolent feelings toward "the poor," "the weak," "the laborers," and others of whom they make pets. They generalize these classes, and render them impersonal, and so constitute the classes into social pets.  (4)


(1) The Forgotten Man, and Other Essays ed. Albert Galloway Keller (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1918)

(2) William Graham Sumner, What Social Classes Owe to Each Other, 1883, chapter nine, On the Case of a Certain Man Who is Never Thought of, pages 75 -78

(3) and (4) Ibid

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