The Forgotten Men & Women of America

In 1883, William Graham Sumner published an essay titled “The Forgotten Man” (originally titled “On the Case of a Certain Man Who Is Never Thought Of” – not quite as catchy) which is as relevant today as it was when it was written. The essay is a great exposition of the laissez-faire understanding and approach to social problems and articulates what I believe many on the libertarian right and within the Tea Party believe today. From a Catholic point of view, there is much I find agreeable within it, though there are certain tangents, unnecessary to the main argument, that I would take issue with.

For Sumner, the Forgotten Man is the industrious and productive member of the working class (and within this I would include small business owners) whose labor supports the advancement of the ideological fantasies of both the left (egalitarian social democracy) and the right (imperial crusades for democracy). In Sumner’s words:

As soon as A observes something which seems to him to be wrong, from which X is 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. As for A and B, who get a law to make themselves do for X what they are willing to do for him, we have nothing to say except that they might better have done it without any law, but what I want to do is to look up C. I want to show you what manner of man he is. I call him the Forgotten Man.

A & B sound a lot like our social democrats and neoconservatives – oh excuse me – our Democrat and Republican establishment leaders who see in the American worker, C, virtually nothing but a source of tax revenue to support whatever they have a mind to do. Academic elites have decided that it is the government’s divinely appointed role to establish a perfect egalitarian order at home and a democratic order abroad. Because the thought of spending their own time, resources, and personal energy on advancing these causes in a peaceful way is absolutely unthinkable, they have decided it is justifiable to expropriate the labor of people who either do not support or are actively hostile and opposed to these dubious moral projects for their establishment and maintenance. That’s just what governments do, we all suppose.

The extent to which the American worker is forgotten in the delusional quest for a perfect world varies. Many of us heard about the people lined up for “Obama money” after the 2008 election. When asked where Obama gets his money to give to them, one of the hopeful recipients guessed that it came from “his stash.” Others said that since they “helped” Obama, he will “help” them by paying for their gas and their mortgages. Others still demanded that they have unlimited access to free birth control and abortions, no matter what anyone thought about it or what rights – to speech, religion or property – they might violate in the process. And of course, we never cease to hear from those who want to spend billions arming one group of psychotic fundamentalist radicals against another, all to protect the innocent, of course.

In all of this ideological madness, the productive worker on whose back the whole host of unproductive government entities and projects, from the welfare bureaucracy to the military itself, is entirely forgotten.* He is briefly remembered during campaign seasons when it is assumed that people want to be placated with tax talk, and when groups such as the Tea Party or the Ron Paul Revolution raise their voices loudly enough (though the former seems indifferent if not supportive of the rate of military expenditure). The rest of the time our elites discuss their ideological fantasies as if the only thing preventing their fruition was the existence of the other party and its own ideological fantasy. That there might be natural limits to the ability to make one’s fantasies reality, and that one of those limits might include the apoplectic rage of people who are tired of working 4/7 of the year to make it all happen, generally doesn’t come up.

Of course both sides insist that we have a moral duty not to complain about whatever it is they want to spend our money on, or, what amounts the same thing, debase our currency for.  It’s part of the “social contract”, they say. It’s for “the common good”, the leftist Catholics declare. It’s for “national security”, the neoconservatives implore us. Forgotten along with the taxpayer is Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum, which establishes that the fruit of our labors is our private property that no one is justified in appropriating for themselves, that charity is never to be forced by human laws, and that the solution to poverty is not welfare but rather property ownership. Forgotten are Catholics such as Dorothy Day, who opposed Social Security as much as she did American imperialism (its ok to be an “anarchist” if you are of a slightly left-leaning variety, though). Forgotten are all those who have known and warned that the modern state is a cold, mechanical, secular monster that is indifferent to or outright hostile towards religious communities that refuse to compromise their principles.

In his essay, Sumner displays some hostility towards people we would classify as social rejects or dropouts. But his point is well taken towards a third group that wishes to spend taxpayer money – statist social conservatives who believe in the “War on Drugs.” He writes:

 It is the industrious workman going home from a hard day’s work, whom you pass without noticing, who is mulcted of a percentage of his day’s earnings to hire a policeman to save the drunkard from himself. All the public expenditure to prevent vice has the same effect. 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. (emphasis mine)

Some people may see in this statement shocking indifference. I see, on the contrary, an affirmation of the natural law. I do not go as far as Sumner, who suggests that such people ought not even be the recipients of private charity. Surely we can and should help those who we can with what we can, though we must also keep in mind that some people do not wish to be helped and cannot be helped. With Sumner, however, I object to the notion that the state exists to protect us from ourselves. Until a person poses a tangible threat to someone else’s basic rights, the state has no justification for laying their hands upon them – as it has done with countless thousands of marijuana users and partakers in other harmless and consensual activities.

The welfare state and the police state both have the effect of “warding off the penalty”, making acceptable and “safe” (remember safe, legal and rare?) life choices that would have been unthinkable previously. Raising children without a husband? It is one thing for the state to intervene when a negligent man abandons his family, and another for the state to subsidize a feminist radical who decides she doesn’t need a man. Julia’s life is a series of evasions of and crimes against the natural law, and it is all made possible by the productive labor of people who neither need nor want the services of this hideous beast, the modern state, offers. It is a monstrous injustice to force anyone to support an otherwise unsupportable lifestyle choice, especially when it violates their conscience to do so. I fail to see how it is substantially different than slavery.

The forgotten men and women of America are a quiet lot. I believe they are generally uninterested in politics for a variety of reasons, though many of them vote and participate and become involved at some level. The day that America’s elites need to fear is not this day, when activist types such as myself are doing what we always do, making noise and such. It is the day when the forgotten men rise up and force them to remember their existence. My guess is that it will follow the day that the dollar completely collapses.


*I don’t mean to imply that society can exist without “unproductive” labor.  Bureaucracies, militaries, etc. are unproductive but necessary to varying extents. It is when they grow at a rate unsupportable by productive labor, and in the service of ends that the majority of productive workers don’t benefit from or find morally repugnant, that these realities have to be highlighted.