In 1883 the Yale sociologist William Graham Sumner published What the Social Classes Owe Each Other, in which he asks whether any social class or interest group has a moral obligation and/or burden to fight the battles of life for any other class of people.
Within the book is an essay titled, “On the Case of a Certain Man Who Is Never Thought Of.” In later years, that essay was separated out and given a more memorable title: “The Forgotten Man.”
As written, it was a declaration of the folly of coercive demands for charity which, if left unchecked, will eventually lead to governmental overreach, which in turn will lead to autocratic social management and control of the citizenry.
Sumner was a 19th century Classical Liberal, which is to say, adopting today’s terminology, a Conservative. And what he wrote is prescient.
The notion of the “Forgotten Man” was picked up by Franklin Roosevelt and his proposed “New Deal,” which was Roosevelt’s plan to organize the American economy around central planning to meet the financial emergency the country was facing during the Depression of the 1930s.
However, as Friedrich Hayek could have pointed out, central planning never works out well. Instead, Roosevelt’s “experts” micromanaged the economy with governmental regulation that eviscerated the ad hoc web of free-market decisions that acted entrepreneurially to meet the immediate needs of individual workers and their families in their concrete situation.
The New Deal, in short, exacerbated the financial woes in the country rather than solving them, in part by outlawing the practices and behaviors that tend toward economic growth and prosperity. And to think, it was all done to help “the forgotten man.”
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As explicated in Amity Shlaes’ amazing 2007 book on the New Deal, The Forgotten Man, it was a member of Roosevelt’s “brain trust,” Ray Moley, who recalled the phrase “the forgotten man” but not its original meaning in Sumner’s essay. Moley then inserted the phrase into Roosevelt’s first great campaign speech.
Roosevelt promised that if elected, he would always act to meet the needs of “the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid.”
But Moley and the future President got the notion exactly wrong.
What Sumner proposed was that there were four interest groups to consider. Group A were the Progressive social planners of his time – late 19th century. Group B were the legislators and bureaucrats of the government. Group C was made up of the large majority of industrious laboring producers who work hard to support their families and improve their situations in life. Group D were the lazy and the drunken, the layabouts who are always looking for handouts.
According to Sumner, The A’s decide there is a moral duty to provide charity to the D’s, who they see as victims of economic forces over which they have no control. As an interest group, the A’s lobby the B’s to pass laws to institutionalize such charity, otherwise known as welfare. But here’s the rub. Where is the money to come from? Why, from the C’s of course.
Thus, with no input in the matter, the A’s and B’s task the C’s with the burden of providing financial and living support for the layabout D’s. Instead of using their money to support their own families, they are forced to give to those who refuse to support themselves. And because they have no say in the matter despite having to bear the burden, Sumner labels the C’s “the forgotten man,” “the man who is never thought of.”
Roosevelt essentially skipped over the C’s and labeled all of the D’s as “the forgotten man,” and thereafter the Democrat Party has been identified as the party of the poor and forgotten, who are constantly at risk from the cruel greed and avarice of Republican businessmen and bankers.
It would be the Democrats, the Progressives, so the party line went, that would always be in the corner of the economically threatened blue-collar worker and the poor. You know, “the forgotten man.”
So what has become of Sumner’s original forgotten man, the C’s, the ordinary and industrious blue-collar working citizens, and other capitalists who are coerced into paying taxes to support what many view as an unproductive and parasitical class of citizens – and these days immigrant non-citizens as well?
Recent years have brought an amazing shift.
Take a quick look at that classic rant from the Howard Beale character in the 1976 film Network. It is, for all intents and purposes, an anthem of the status of “the forgotten man” today.
Just think of events in recent decades in which the common man, the C’s, feel they are being overburdened by the B’s, government bureaucrats, and regulators, in order to satisfy the desires of their financial backers, the Progressive interest groups, and lawyers and teachers and the media that make up the A’s.
As for the D’s, “Hey, baby, just keep the checks coming.”
Think about Rick Santelli’s equally classic rant on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange on Feb. 19, 2009.
He was reacting to an Obama proposal to meet the housing crisis by subsidizing those who are underwater with their mortgages and funding these subsidies with taxes provided by the C’s. Or, to put it in Santelli’s terms, Obama’s B’s are rewarding bad economic behavior by prohibiting these overdrawn consumers from experiencing the economic ruin their own choices have caused.
Santelli’s rant was a major factor in energizing the 2009 Tea Party Movement, the significance of which was that it ridiculed the federal government and its overreach rather than criticizing businesses and bankers, which were targets of populist ire in previous generations.
Think about California’s Proposition 13, which was supported by voters in June of 1978. Rebelling against the state legislature’s confiscatory taxation of property, the voters simply stated, “Enough”!
The proposition limited the rate of increase in taxes on property that was imposed yearly on California citizens. It became a model for other communities suffering unbearable tax burdens.
Think about the 2016 Brexit vote in England. Citizens there were burdened with governmental regulations forced on them by unelected European bureaucrats that impacted their lives in numerous ways, not least of which being the attack on their status as a sovereign nation. Those voting to leave the European Union rejected both British political parties as being elitists who had no regard for the ordinary workers’ values and interests.
For their part, the elite media, political class, and academics dismissed those supporting Brexit as unenlightened morons who simply cannot understand the ways of the modern world, and thus lash out in frustration and anger at their more experienced and worldly betters.
Think about the Trump revolt, also in 2016. Trump, unbeknownst to the major media and the political pundit class, tapped into the growing dissatisfaction of ordinary workers with the elites. Thus, the elites mercilessly mocked Trump as a rich rube who was completely out of his depth. To their shock, Trump beat Hillary. And that set off waves of incomprehension and emotional ruptures.
Hillary actually managed to exemplify the problem herself when she labeled Trump supporters a “basket of deplorables.” Note the derisive laughter from her audience when she vilifies and dismisses the C’s of her world, today’s forgotten men and women who are suddenly finding their voice.
Thus, Hillary pretty much set the standard reaction that stands to this day when the elite A’s and B’s are confronted by resistance from the C’s: dismissive derision and libelous claims of being racists, white supremacists, misogynists, etc., as well as attempts to remove them from their jobs or any other sphere of influence.
And what was the real violation these Trump supporters exhibited? Simply, they had said with their voices and with their contributions and with their votes, “Enough”!
And lest you think this is a purely American phenomenon, think about the gilets jaunes (i.e. yellow vests) in November of 2018 in France. It began as a tax protest against President Macron’s increased fuel costs meant to financially support “green energy.” Then, organized in various locales by workers and other opponents of government overreach, they began to blockade roadways and fuel depots.
This movement had no recognized leader and no political party behind it. It was simply the spontaneous outburst of citizens who were saying as forcefully as they were able, “Enough”!
Think about the school board parents in recent months who, once they saw the school indoctrination that their kids had to endure, took school boards to task for forcing a “woke” agenda on their children.
And for their trouble, the A’s and B’s in the persons of the mainline media, as well as the teachers’ unions, conspired with the government to have these loving and concerned parents labeled possible domestic terrorists by the Justice Dept. They were also, in full Hillary fashion, dismissively called deplorable in their racism, their white supremacy, their transphobia, and their misogyny.
In effect, the parents were being told to keep quiet, submit to their betters, don’t raise questions about that of which you are unenlightened, and keep paying your taxes to support your local school board and schools. The parents, for their part, were simply saying in the only way they knew how, “Enough”!
Think about the Canadian truckers now, who have been forced to live with COVID mandates that make absolutely no scientific or practical sense. Only in a political sense – from Justin Trudeau’s perspective – do the mandates make any sense.
The boy-king has proclaimed the law of the land, and the fledgling autocrat does not handle criticism well. How dare they oppose the wise and beneficent ruler of all things Canadian? How dare they? I’ll show them, the ignorant upstarts.
And so he imposes the Canadian Emergency Act which brings the full force of coercive government down on the heads of truckers and their supporters who simply want a common-sense approach to COVID. Then, in full Hillary mode, he dismissively castigates the truckers as a bunch of Fascists marching under a Swastika banner and as a bunch of white supremacists.
He has taken their trucks, their pets, their livelihoods, their bank accounts, and for what? Because they dared to say, “Enough”!
It was Ronald Reagan who said: “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.”
While most will not recognize that as a Reagan quote, they nonetheless recognize the truth of the statement in their very bones. We are at risk, though the authoritarian elites will never admit it.
So the A’s – the mainline media, the think tank intellectuals, the political pundits, the lawyers, the teachers, the lobbyists, etc. – and the B’s – the political elite class, both Republican and Democrat, as well as the entrenched government bureaucracy – all now belittle, insult and demean the C’s.
Who cares what the C’s think, the A’s and B’s now say. They’re just a bunch of racist, white supremacist Trump supporters, anyway. So who the fuck cares about them and what they think?
Exactly! Who cares about them? Who cares about “the forgotten man?”
By Ron Nutter
Ron Nutter is a regular contributor to The Blue State Conservative, and retired college professor of Philosophy and Religion living in a cabin on a mountain in Western North Carolina with his retired physician wife, and he still reads voraciously.
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The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Blue State Conservative. The BSC is not responsible for, and does not verify the accuracy of, any information presented.
Featured photo by Ivan Radic, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons