William Graham Sumner, I have argued, was not a social Darwinist. He was a laissez-faire liberal who was a fierce opponent of militarism, protectionism, and plutocracy. Far from being a champion of the strong against the weak, he was a champion of the “Forgotten Man” against both the socialists who would exploit his labor for the benefit of the masses, and the plutocrats who would exploit him for the benefit of the privileged few.
At times, however, Sumner seems to go farther than this. On the issue of poverty relief, for instance, Sumner does not confine himself to the standard classical liberal critique of coercive redistribution. At times, he seems to caution against even charity of the purely voluntary sort. After all, he notes, such charitable giving might divert resources away from productive channels where they would do more good.

The next time that you are tempted to subscribe a dollar to a charity, I do not tell you not to do it, because after you have fairly considered the matter, you may think it right to do it, but I do ask you to stop and remember the Forgotten Man and understand that if you put your dollar in the savings bank it will go to swell the capital of the country which is available for division amongst those who, while they earn it, will reproduce it with increase.”]
So one problem with charitable giving is that it, like every activity, has an opportunity cost. But this is not all. In some passages, Sumner seems to suggest that the problem with charity is not merely that it relieves suffering at the expense of productive capital investment, but simply that it relieves suffering at all!

Vice is its own curse. If we let nature alone, she cures vice by the most frightful penalties. It may shock you to hear me say it, but when you get over the shock, it will do you good to think of it: a drunkard in the gutter is just where he ought to be. Nature is working away at him to get him out of the way, just as she sets up her processes of dissolution to remove whatever is a failure in its line. Gambling and less mentionable vices all cure themselves by the ruin and dissolution of their victims. Nine-tenths of our measures for preventing vice are really protective towards it, because they ward off the penalty.”]
Finally, in one of the most damning and controversial passages he ever wrote, Sumner warns of the ultimate consequences for society of listening to the “socialists and sentimentalists” who seek to “regulate in any way the struggle of interests under liberty.”

If we do not like the survival of the fittest, we have only one alternative and that is the survival of the unfittest. If A, the unfittest to survive, is about to perish and somebody interferes to make B, the fittest, carry and preserve A, it is plain that the unfittest is made to survive and that he is maintained at the expense of B, who is curtailed and restrained by just so much. This process, therefore, is a lowering of social development and is working backwards, not forwards.”]
This last passage is especially problematic, not only for its troubling moral implications, but for its apparent incompatibility with the way Sumner explicitly defined the idea of “the survival of the fittest” elsewhere in his writings. As I noted in an earlier essay, Sumner generally emphasized that the phrase “survival of the fittest” does not mean survival of the best. “Fitness,” in an evolutionary context, simply means “adaptation to environment,” and what is well-suited to one environment might be ill-suited to another. But if this is what Sumner means by the “survival of the fittest,” then how can he consistently claim that socialism would produce the survival of the unfittest? Wouldn’t it be more consistent to say that what counts as “fitness” under socialism is simply different from what counts as “fitness” in a free market? The claim that socialism promotes the survival of the “unfittest” seems to impute an evaluative meaning to “fitness” of precisely the sort Sumner elsewhere properly took pains to deny.
Sumner himself seems to have eventually recognized that the phrase was, at the very least, more trouble than it was worth. After a short period of controversy that went as far as the editorial page of the New York Times, Sumner apparently dropped all talk of “survival of the fittest” and the “unfittest” from his speeches and writings. Neither phrase appears anywhere in his What Social Classes Owe to Each Other, and his use of the especially problematic “survival of the unfittest” phrase seems to be confined to a relatively small number of mostly unpublished pieces between 1879 and 1884.
But more can be said on Sumner’s behalf than this. The passages above are blunt (it was not for nothing that Sumner was known as “Bluff Billy”). But the ideas they express are, extracted from Sumner’s feisty rhetoric and dispassionately examined, relatively uncontroversial. And when they are understood in the broader context of Sumner’s thought on issues of poverty, responsibility, and the state, they form a doctrine that is not without significant attraction.
First, consider Sumner’s remark about the “drunk in the gutter.” The most striking claim in that passage, of course, is that such a person is “just where he ought to be.” And it would be easy to infer from this claim that Sumner is indifferent to the suffering of the drunk, or perhaps that he even approves of it.
But nothing could be further from the truth. Sumner abhors vice, and the suffering it produces for its bearer and for society as a whole. But he is sensitive to the problem of moral hazard. The more we do to relieve the suffering that naturally accompanies vice, the more we chip away at one of the strongest natural disincentives to vicious behavior. The lower the costs of vice, the more vicious people we get, and the more vicious people we get, the more suffering there is (since the suffering vice creates cannot be eliminated altogether, but only transferred from the vicious onto some other innocent person). A concern to avoid moral hazard is thus entirely compatible with a concern to reduce the suffering of others.
Second, Sumner’s writings reflect what he saw to be an important moral difference between suffering that is due to chance and suffering that is due to choice. Sumner’s discussions of poverty are often infused with moralistic language such as “negligent,” “imprudent,” and “incompetent.” And, again, it would be easy—especially for one reading only quotes taken out of context—to come away from such passages thinking that Sumner is attributing these vices to the poor as a class.
But this, again, would be a mistake. Language such as this is easy to come across in Sumner’s arguments against redistribution, not because he identifies poverty with vice, but because he is limiting his argument to that poverty which is the result of vice. Sumner doesn’t think that those who are poor because of their own laziness, imprudence, or incompetence have any claim of justice to the assistance of those who were more cautious and successful. And it is for precisely this reason that he finds it less than helpful to talk about “the poor” as a class.

Under the names of the poor and the weak, the negligent, shiftless, inefficient, silly, and imprudent are fastened upon the industrious and prudent as a responsibility and a duty. On the one side, the terms are extended to cover the idle, intemperate, and vicious, who, by the combination, gain credit which they do not deserve, and which they could not get if they stood alone. On the other hand, the terms are extended to include wage-receivers of the humblest rank, who are degraded by the combination.”]
Thus, the problem isn’t that all poor people are negligent and imprudent. The problem is that some of them are, and lumping together “the poor and the weak” as a class obscures the important moral differences between them and those who are poor despite their industriousness and prudence.
When our fellow men do the best they can and nevertheless suffer because of bad luck, Sumner thinks, we have a moral (if limited and not legally enforceable) obligation to come to their aid. Indeed, in the final chapter of What Social Classes Owe to Each Other, titled, “Wherefore We Should Love One Another,” Sumner goes even further and claims—surprisingly!—that this obligation sometimes extends even to individuals who suffer because of their own bad choices.

We may philosophize as coolly and correctly as we choose about our duties and about the laws of right living; no one of us lives up to what he knows. The man struck by the falling tree has, perhaps, been careless. We are all careless. Environed as we are by risks and perils, which befall us as misfortunes, no man of us is in a position to say, “I know all the laws, and am sure to obey them all; therefore I shall never need aid and sympathy.” At the very best, one of us fails in one way and another in another, if we do not fail altogether. Therefore the man under the tree is the one of us who for the moment is smitten. It may be you tomorrow, and I next day. It is the common frailty in the midst of a common peril which gives us a kind of solidarity of interest to rescue the one for whom the chances of life have turned out badly just now. Probably the victim is to blame. He almost always is so. A lecture to that effect in the crisis of his peril would be out of place, because it would not fit the need of the moment; but it would be very much in place at another time, when the need was to avert the repetition of such an accident to somebody else. Men, therefore, owe to men, in the chances and perils of this life, aid and sympathy, on account of the common participation in human frailty and folly.”]
Sumner goes on to say that this obligation is based in a “law of sympathy” that cannot be made the basis of any “mechanical and impersonal schemes,” thus relegating it to the realm of private virtue rather than public law.
But a handout is not really what the poor need from the state anyway, on Sumner’s view. What the poor need—especially the prudent and industrious poor—is for the state to get its foot off their necks. What the poor need is liberty. And those of us who are in a position to demand it on their behalf have an obligation to do so. Taxes, regulations, and restrictions upon the poor, in Sumner’s words,

represent the bitterest and basest social injustice. Every honest citizen of a free state owes it to himself, to the community, and especially to those who are at once weak and wronged, to go to their assistance and to help redress their wrongs. Whenever a law or social arrangement acts so as to injure any one, and that one the humblest, then there is a duty on those who are stronger, or who know better, to demand and fight for redress and correction. When generalized this means that it is the duty of All-of-us (that is, the State) to establish justice for all, from the least to the greatest, and in all matters.”]
This is a vision of social justice—or, at least, the minimum requirements of social justice—on which all of us should be able to agree.