Liberalism and the Forgotten Man

ForgottenManThumbby Timothy Lane
Amity Schlaes wrote an interesting history of the New Deal that includes such heartwarming tidbits as a Russian woman who, when challenged by Paul Douglas (visiting her Russian factory in 1927) about Soviet kangaroo courts, mocked his bourgeois notions of justice; a decade later, Douglas read a snippet in the newspaper indicating that Stalin had given her loyalty its fitting reward. She used as the basis for her title a misunderstood concept from a speech by William Graham Sumner at Yale in 1883 that included the following excerpt:

“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 propose to get a law passed to remedy the evil and help X. Their law always proposed to determine what C shall do for X, or in the better case, what A, B, and C shall do for X. . . . What I want to do is look up C. I want to show you what manner of man he is. I call him the Forgotten Man. Perhaps the appellation is not strictly correct. He is the man who never is thought of. . . . He works, he votes, generally he prays – but he always pays.”

It’s obvious to see how this applies, for example, to social welfare and other forms of government spending and the taxes that pay for it. The effect of those taxes (or, alternatively, the borrowing that crowds out other forms of credit) is usually ignored by those who advocate action.

Economically this is known as opportunity cost; in games theory it’s referred to as a zero-sum game; in some circles it has become known as the broken-window fallacy, from an observation by the French economist Bastiat that looking at the benefits of spending without considering the cost is comparable to believing that the vandal who breaks a window is actually a societal benefactor because the window will have to be replaced (using money that instead would have gone to some other purpose).

As late as 1967, Robert Kennedy gave a speech on the limits of GNP in which he pointed out that GNP included the cost of repairing damage for riots but wasn’t reduced for the damage itself. Nearly 30 years later, Robert Reich would boast of the benefit repairing the damage from massive Midwestern floods would provide for the GDP It’s no surprise that people like Reich would never think of the Forgotten Men.

The problem can apply to more than financial penalties, however. In the early 1980s, I read in National Review about the Yonkers scattered-site housing dispute. Yonkers had encouraged blacks to move there at the suggestion of the federal government in the 1950s. This led to segregated housing (it’s not clear how much of the segregation was racial and how much was fiscal), which is in fact what was recommended.

So an arrogant judge decided to order them, as punishment for racial segregation at the federal government’s behest (which other towns escaped because they didn’t encourage blacks to move there), to set up scattered-site housing in middle-class areas. He even ordered the city council to vote to approve his plan, on the penalty of fines for every day they failed to obey his tyrannical order. (Acts such as this remind me of the state motto of my native state, Virginia.) When it was suggested that he instead put scattered-site housing in his own gated community, he demurred on the grounds that there was insufficient public transportation to serve them.

Ever since then, the single greatest aspect of my political views has been the interest of the Forgotten Men. They pay taxes for various programs to benefit rich, influential people either directly or by making them feel good. (This is why I’ve observed that liberal charity comes down to, “I feel guilty that I’m so rich and that person over there is so poor. Why don’t I take some money from you and give it to him so I’ll feel better and he’ll be grateful to me?”)

But they also support an array of social policies, such as school busing, scattered-site housing, handcuffing the police, deinstitutionalization of the insane, education policies that trap most people in increasingly wretched public schools, and others – while carefully making sure that they suffer no significant price (except perhaps expendable dollars, and as few of those as they can arrange).

Sumner’s analysis could be considered a description of the modern form of what is called liberalism or progressivism (though it more accurately is probably best called quasi-fascist leftism). “A” would be the ordinary grassroots liberal who sees all sorts of problems, thinks of a quick solution, and (perhaps because feeling is more important to such people’s political views than thinking) never considering the effects their proposals will have on the Forgotten Men. Whatever the flaws in their ideas, such people at least are decent, sincere people.

X, of course, is the beneficiaries, and most importantly those beneficiaries who (as a letter-writer to the Washington Times once put it) vote for a living. (Theodore H. White observed this as far back as the 1960 election, and Nat Hentoff saw its pernicious effects during the 1960s in Harlem.) In this respect, we must remember that not all beneficiaries think of themselves that way. For X one can feel sympathy, tempered in some cases by their eagerness to accept such pseudo-generosity as their due.

B represents the elites, who work up and put into effect the political plans on the basis of solving X’s problems – but in reality, they care only about themselves, with X’s problems merely the excuse for actions that they intend to benefit from. • (804 views)

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9 Responses to Liberalism and the Forgotten Man

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    One of the effects of the 19th Amendment was to make “compassion” a viable subject for enhancing the power of the demagogues. Mr. or Mrs. C has never been the same since.

  2. RobL_V2 RobL_V2 says:

    I’m reminded of Milton Friedman’s summation of socialist algebra (likely derived from his study of Sumner).

    ‘A and B decide what C shall do D except that they take a little commission off on the way’

  3. Timothy Lane says:

    On a related issue, Michael Brown has an article today on on the subject of religious liberty and anti-discrimination laws. He provides a large number of possible scenarios, such as conservative Christians seeking to have a homosexual business make t-shirts with anti-homosexual quotes from the Bible on them, or a Muslim business being asked to cooperate with a Hindu temple bringing in a nice statue of Krishna. By the modern “anti-discrimination” logic that’s put in for the benefit of homosexuals, none would be allowed to reject the business. It’s my view that anti-discrimination laws should only be used in a critical situation, such as can reasonably be argued existed for blacks in much of the country (and especially the South) half a century ago. Again, we see A (liberals who can’t accept any problem, however minor, as being part of the slippage of life) combining with B (the elites) to decide what C (businesses) must do (regardless of political or other convictions) for X (official victim groups).

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      The essence of the busy-body, full-of-themselves, self-righteous Left is to try to criminalize what are, in essence, just normal disagreements. For the Left (the Utopian statists), they want everything to rise to a Federal issue. They want a one-size-fits-all society.

      And as Americans with now little tolerance for true diversity, for making our own moral judgments, and with a wimpish aversion to risk, we’ve become the neutered and silly fellows who have made life easy for this narcissistic nannies of the Left.

  4. Black JEM says:

    X, of course, is the beneficiaries, and most importantly those beneficiaries who (as a letter-writer to the Washington Times once put it) vote for a living. (Theodore H. White observed this as far back as the 1960 election, and Nat Hentoff saw its pernicious effects during the 1960s in Harlem.) In this respect, we must remember that not all beneficiaries think of themselves that way. For X one can feel sympathy, tempered in some cases by their eagerness to accept such pseudo-generosity as their due.

    This situation was actually observed by critics of the new deal during and after WWII. It is the creation of the welfare and dependent class, of which unions were a part, in order to garner a voting population that would always vote democratic, in exchange for favors over which the dem party would skim a fitting tribute. That is how they are funded today – and why they are fighting voter ID like crazy. If they cannot deliver the votes, their targets of bribery will not be compelled to give them campaign dollars in exchange for preferential legislation.

    • Black JEM says:

      Sorry – top part was italicized quote of post – the second part was my response to it.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      I seem to recall reading in a biography of Thomas Dewey that he pointed out the danger of dependency. One good example of how I differentiate between those who merely accept welfare and those who consider it their due came in the food giveaway that the Hearst family did at the behest of the Symbionese Liberation Army as a ransom payment for Patty. Some of the recipients were regretful of what was happening but felt they needed the food, and I could feel sympathy for them. Others liked the idea, and I would have liked to see those come down with severe cases of food poisoning.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        I have a friend who got involved with a charity last year around Christmas time. They handed out toys to children (and their parents). He thought he’d get some warm-fuzzy holiday pick-me-up buzz from doing this. Instead, he was shocked at how the parents were so bereft of any kind of gratitude. They seemed to view these free toys as a right.

        People, this is what’s brewing out there because of the welfare state. This is not “compassion.” Hold onto your butts….


    It’s good to see that Timothy did not forget Sumner’s Forgotten Man (as FDR did by confusing “C” with “X”). As a matter of fact, Sumner probably should have interchanged the two; thus A & B decide to give C money which they will steal from X. “X” seems more like a forgotten man, or at least a forgotten letter of the alphabet, then “C” does. It’s also interesting to note by how many years Sumner seems to have anticipated Ayn Rand.

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