Libertarians have long been hostile to the idea of “social justice.” Personally, I think that some of their more common objections are misguided. But even a Bleeding Heart Libertarian like me can (happily) admit that there’s a lot to be learned from what libertarians have had to say about this issue. Whatever case can be made for social justice (if any), will have to be one that takes the best libertarian critiques of social justice seriously. And William Graham Sumner’s is certainly one of the best.
Sumner, of course, never used the phrase “social justice,” which didn’t become popular until after his death. But throughout his writings he was severely critical of the idea that society has any general obligation to help “the poor.” One of his most trenchant critiques of this idea is to be found in his memorable and important essay, “The Forgotten Man.”
Quite apart from its content, the essay is memorable for its style and rhetorical effectiveness. Even by the high standards Sumner’s other writings set, it is simply a great pleasure to read. But there is a substance beneath the style. Sumner’s essay puts forth a general analysis of what we might call “social legislation”—government programs designed to “fix” some kind of “social problem,” whether that problem be that some persons live in poverty, that other people are drinking too much, or that laborers stand in a disadvantageous economic position relative to their employers.
Every such program, Sumner wrote, begins with some person A observing some problem from which another person X appears to be suffering.

A talks it over with B, and A and B then propose to get a law passed to remedy the evil and help X. Their law always proposes to determine what C shall do for X or, in the better case, what A, B and C shall do for X.”]
And who is C?

I call him the Forgotten Man. Perhaps the appellation is not strictly correct. He is the man who never is thought of. He is the victim of the reformer, social speculator and philanthropist, and I hope to show you before I get through that he deserves your notice both for his character and for the many burdens which are laid upon him.”]
The Forgotten Man is forgotten because he is, in a word, boring. “He is the simple, honest laborer, ready to earn his living by productive work.” He is “the clean, quiet, virtuous, domestic citizen, who pays his debts and his taxes and is never heard of out of his little circle.” The Forgotten Man spends his time “in patient industry, supporting his family, paying his taxes, casting his vote, supporting the church and the school, reading his newspaper” and generally minding his own business. And this, in the end, is precisely why he is forgotten. “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.”
It is quite another case with “the poor and the weak,” who, Sumner argues, are constantly put forth by social reformers “as objects of public interest and public obligation.” Their suffering is obvious to us, and moves us to want to do something to help. It is What is Seen. But what is not seen is the effect our proposed program of relief for X will have on C – the Forgotten Man.

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 … Capital is force. If it goes one way it cannot go another…”]
“Society” can only devote resources to the relief of X by taking them away from C. Similarly, the law cannot eliminate altogether harmful consequences of X’s imprudent behavior; it can only shift those consequences, out of sight, onto somebody else’s back.

The whole system of social regulation by boards, commissioners, and inspectors consists in relieving negligent people of the consequences of their negligence and so leaving them to continue negligent without correction…Now, if you relieve negligent people of the consequences of their negligence, you can only throw those consequences on the people who have not been negligent.”]
Sumner devotes much of his essay to criticizing programs aimed at helping the poor. But it is important to recognize that Sumner did not regard such programs as the only threat to the Forgotten Man, or even the most dangerous one. As I noted in my last essay, Sumner actually saw the most serious social threat as emanating from programs designed to help the rich. And this is why Sumner was as fierce a critic of plutocracy as he was of socialism.
The Forgotten Man was threatened not only by programs of social relief, but by what Sumner referred to as “jobbery.” Jobbery, or as we would now call it, “rent-seeking,” Sumner defined as “the constantly apparent effort to win wealth, not by honest and independent production, but by some sort of a scheme for extorting other people’s product from them.” As examples of jobbery, Sumner condemned various programs of public works, subsidies to miners and farmers, and most especially the protective tariff, a device that he memorably described as “delivering every man over to be plundered by his neighbor and […] teaching him to believe that it is a good thing for him and his country because he may take his turn at plundering the rest.”
Now, it would be easy to come away from these passages thinking that Sumner is making a rather obvious consequentialist point – that government programs designed to do good will often, through corruption or ignorance, produce unintended negative effects. And that is, to be sure, an important part of Sumner’s argument. Sumner, like Herbert Spencer, made frequent appeals in his political writings to the idea of society as a spontaneous order, and often pointed out that attempts to replace this order with a theoretically more desirable but artificially constructed one would likely yield unintended and unwanted consequences.
But this consequentialist argument not the most interesting, the most original, or even the most important part of Sumner’s case against redistribution and regulation. What sets Sumner’s argument apart and, I suspect, makes it resonate so clearly with such a wide audience, is his appeal to justice. After all, it is “the Forgotten Man and the Forgotten Woman [who] are the very life and substance of society.” They are the ones who work to support themselves and their families, who pay their taxes, and who engage in the productive labor on which the maintenance and growth of society depend. Why, Sumner asks, should people such as this, who already faithfully bear the burdens for which they are properly responsible, be further burdened “with the cost of public beneficence, with the support of all the loafers, with the loss of all the economic quackery” and with the cost of pervasive jobbery?

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. The silly popular notion is that the beggars live at the expense of the rich, but the truth is that those who eat and produce not, live at the expense of those who labor and produce.”]
If it is the Forgotten Man and Woman on whom the health and future of our society depends, then should not society help, rather than hinder them, in their productive efforts? If X is capable of supporting himself but chooses not to, is it not unfair—indeed, exploitative—to use the coercive power of law to allow X to live at C’s expense?
There is a powerful argument here. But how far does it go? Sumner is clearly opposed to coercive redistribution by law. But what do his arguments imply about voluntary charity? Does Sumner’s heart bleed at all for the poor, the weak, and the downtrodden? And what lessons can libertarians learn from all this? It is to these questions that I will turn in my next essay.