Last month, Rick Santorum announced that he likes inequality. “There is income inequality in America,” he told the Detroit Economic Club in a much-quoted speech. “There always has been and, hopefully, and I do say that, there always will be.”
Many political observers have since ridiculed this stance, declaring Santorum “unhinged,” or at least unfit to conduct a serious presidential campaign. But the positive defense of inequality is not entirely new in American politics. From the moment that social reformers began to “discover” poverty in the 19th century, naysayers were on hand to explain why extremes of wealth and poverty made for a just society. By embracing inequality, Santorum is reviving the politics of our last Gilded Age.
One of the earliest (and most acerbic) champions of inequality was William Graham Sumner, a Yale sociologist and one of the best-known public intellectuals of the late 19th century. Sumner started his career as an Episcopal priest, tending to the pastoral needs of a New Jersey flock. Within a few years, however, he concluded that his temperament—famously standoffish and blunt—was better suited to scholarly endeavors. As a professor, he helped to pioneer the new discipline of sociology, coining such lasting terms as ethnocentrism and folkways in his studies of American culture. He also made a name for himself as a staunch anti-imperialist and principled opponent of the Spanish-American War.
But it was in the realm of economic philosophy that Sumner carved out his most controversial and lasting influence. In 1883, he composed a short book-length essay titled “What Social Classes Owe to Each Other.” His answer? Absolutely nothing.
In making his case for laissez-faire, Sumner highlighted one of the enduring paradoxes of American politics. “It is commonly asserted that there are in the United States no classes, and any allusion to classes is resented,” he noted. “On the other hand, we constantly read and hear discussion of social topics in which the existence of social classes is assumed as a simple fact.” This was particularly true of the 1870s, which witnessed a serious financial panic and depression, followed by a major national railroad strike. In response, reformers began to argue for government to take a greater role in aiding the poor and in softening the rough edges of industrial capitalism.
Sumner’s essay rejected all such nonsense. “It is not at all the function of the State to make men happy,” he declared. “They must make themselves happy in their own way, and at their own risk.” Today, he would be called a libertarian. At the time, the term of choice was “Social Darwinist.” One of the more fashionable theories of Gilded Age class relations, Social Darwinism attempted to apply the laws of evolution to human society, and thus to explain why those who ended up on top were necessarily “the fittest” among men.
Sumner was unabashed in his admiration for millionaires, and indignant at criticism lobbed in their direction. “The rich are good-natured,” he insisted, model citizens to be applauded for their initiative and patience with lesser souls. He approved the “aggregation of large fortunes” as “a necessary condition of many forms of social advance.” Toward that end, he argued strenuously against restrictions on Wall Street stockjobbing and other forms of speculative gain. “To denounce financial devices which are useful and legitimate because use is made of them for fraud is ridiculous,” he wrote. Also to be avoided were government investigative commissions, increased taxes, and Sunday-morning haranguing about how the rich owed something to the poor.
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