“The Absurd Effort to Make the World Over” Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Writing in the Forum, a leading American general-interest intellectual magazine, Yale sociologist William Graham Sumner published an essay critiquing the push for “social reform” in the late nineteenth century. Sumner attacks Progressive-Era efforts to bring about social and economic reform, claiming that these efforts were both wrong-headed and doomed to failure because of the Progressive inability to come to grips with the intractable nature of social reality. According to Sumner, Progressives are also frequently in error in their assertions about change for the conditions of the working class, which had actually improved since the colonial era despite the Progressive claims that industrialization harmed workers. Sumner sketches a picture of economic progress celebrating the rise of the industrial organization that dominates society and provides a level of prosperity unequaled in history.

Summary Overview

Writing in the Forum, a leading American general-interest intellectual magazine, Yale sociologist William Graham Sumner published an essay critiquing the push for “social reform” in the late nineteenth century. Sumner attacks Progressive-Era efforts to bring about social and economic reform, claiming that these efforts were both wrong-headed and doomed to failure because of the Progressive inability to come to grips with the intractable nature of social reality. According to Sumner, Progressives are also frequently in error in their assertions about change for the conditions of the working class, which had actually improved since the colonial era despite the Progressive claims that industrialization harmed workers. Sumner sketches a picture of economic progress celebrating the rise of the industrial organization that dominates society and provides a level of prosperity unequaled in history.

Defining Moment

The late nineteenth century in the United States was a time of capitalist economic transformation. The wealth and power of business magnates or “robber barons” was being challenged by Progressive reformers hoping to regulate it and by nascent labor unions organizing workers seeking better working conditions and higher wages. The extremely wealthy, whose wealth was not based as in the colonial era on land but rather on money, were an increasingly prominent presence in American life. Businesses, particularly large businesses, were more frequently organized into corporations. In reaction, socialism, an import from Europe, was also attracting much interest among Americans. The so-called Gilded Age saw a dramatic increase in the influence of business on government.

The growing power of capitalists was connected to an even more fundamental economic transformation: the rise of industry with the growth of the railroad system and the expansion of manufacturing. America, which had since colonial times had been a predominantly agricultural economy, was becoming a more industrialized one. The Northeast, where Sumner spent his life, was a leading region in this transformation. Along with this transformation, the relatively high wages paid by American industry attracted increasing immigration from Europe and elsewhere. By fostering immigration, industrialization made the United States a more diverse and multicultural country, and by concentrating populations in industrial and commercial cities, it made the nation more urbanized. As enterprises grew larger, managers and business owners grew more removed from workers than they had been in small workshop enterprises.

Sumner was also writing at a time when the study of society was becoming professionalized and secularized, as exemplified by his own decision to leave the ministry and enter the world of the university. Influences from Europe were leading to the creation of the discipline of sociology, the study of society, of which Sumner was a leading early practitioner. Along with secularism went a growing tendency toward materialism, analyzing society not in terms of abstract principles but material benefits. Classical economics, with its exaltation of free trade and suspicion of government intervention in the economy, had arrived in the United States from Britain in the mid-nineteenth century, but its influence was continuing to grow in Sumner’s time. This was frequently combined with the influence of Darwinian ideas about advances through struggle and the positivist prioritizing of facts over theory. The new ideas were arriving at a time when the academic curriculum was in turmoil, as the old curriculum based on religion and the Greek and Roman classics was increasingly seen as irrelevant to modern life, and academics like Sumner contended over what students should be required and expected to learn.

Author Biography

William Graham Sumner (1840–1910) was born to an English immigrant couple in Paterson, New Jersey. He briefly served as an Episcopal clergyman, but in 1872, he left the ministry to become professor of political economy at Yale University. Although his interests later shifted to the study of society, Sumner remained deeply influenced by the orthodox free-trade economics of the nineteenth century. Like other American economic conservatives, he supported a gold-backed currency, opposing the free silver movement and protectionism. He was also highly suspicious of labor unions, although he believed that they served morale-building and information-disseminating purposes. Later deemed a Social Darwinist (a term not widely used at the time), he became embroiled in a controversy with the Yale administration for employing the English Social Darwinist Herbert Spencer’s The Study of Sociology (1873) as a textbook. Sumner pioneered the establishment of sociology as an academic discipline in America, teaching the first sociology course at an American university in 1875 and being elected the second president of the American Sociological Society in 1908.

Document Analysis

Sumner’s focus in this essay is less on the ends of progressive reform than on the “absurd” reforming instinct itself, which he finds incompatible with the enormous difficulty of changing social habits and customs. Sumner believes that the reformers are intellectually sloppy, using words without a rigorous understanding of their meaning and making assertions, particularly about past societies, without awareness of their truth or falsity. This leads them to paint contemporary society as declining when it is in many ways improving.

All claims about the deteriorating condition of American workers are, in Sumner’s belief, false and based on an inadequate knowledge of the past. Sentimentality and a tendency for making broad, abstract statements without a basis in social reality are also problems for Progressive activists and thinkers. Calling for more rigorous fact-checking of claims about society would also benefit his position as an academic by promoting professionalization of social thought. All social analysis that is not based on rigorous factual analysis Sumner attacks as “sentimental” or “ethical”; his use of the word “ethical” in a derogatory sense broke with its use in mainstream American culture.

Sumner’s picture of history is one where the great forces underlying social and historical change are largely immune to conscious action. (In his emphasis on changes in economic relations driving history, his awareness of the significance of the rise of industry, and his materialism, Sumner resembles his older contemporary, Karl Marx, whose politics he held in low regard.) The great economic change of Sumner’s own period as he saw it was the rise of large, disciplined organizations associated with the growth of industry. Sumner does not use the term “Industrial Revolution,” generally accepted as having been popularized by the British economic historian Arnold Toynbee (1852–83), but it is clear he sees the rise of industry as connected to major social transformation. These organizations regulate the life of the worker to a degree unprecedented in the less organized enterprises of the colonial and early national periods, giving rise to (in his view) baseless charges of “wage slavery,” but they have also, and far more importantly, delivered an unparalleled prosperity. Trying to pass laws to moderate the impact of these changing social forces is a waste of time, in Sumner’s view.

Economic prosperity is close to a supreme good for Sumner, although he seems to prefer that all classes benefit. He argues that the material condition of American workers has improved greatly since the colonial era and that the increasing regimentation of work is a small price to pay.

Essential Themes

Sumner became one of America’s leading and most respected intellectuals. His brand of laissez-faire conservatism, built on the defense of capitalism and economic inequality, has had a great influence on the politics of American business and has always had its champions among university professors (more economists than practitioners of Sumner’s own discipline of sociology) and other scholars. There has also been a revival of interest in Sumner’s economic thought among libertarians. However, if he thought his essay would stop the Progressive movement in its tracks, he was destined for disappointment. The anti-trust campaign under the administrations of Republicans Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft attempted to rein in the power of the wealthy with some success, and the New Deal of the 1930s saw the further expansion of the regulatory state as a response to the Great Depression. Labor unions, which attempted to ameliorate the conditions of work and increase wages through collective action, also survived and grew in the subsequent decades. Although Sumner believed that government should interfere with business as little as possible, he also feared the influence of business on government, and there is some evidence that by the early twentieth century, he was more skeptical of the extremely wealthy.

Debates about the effectiveness of social reform and the value of economic controls versus economic freedom have continued to the present day. Although Sumner and his intellectual allies are often referred to as “classical liberals,” the skeptical position against reform movements and the belief that large enterprises and wealthy people should be allowed to go their own ways with minimal interference he put forth is now identified with conservative forces in American political and intellectual life. Furthermore, great concentrations of wealth and their effect on American society are now usually discussed under the heading of inequality.

Bibliography and Additional Readings
  • Curtis, Bruce. William Graham Sumner. Boston: Twayne, 1981. Print.
  • Hofstadter, Richard. Social Darwinism in American Thought. Boston: Beacon, 1992. Print.
  • McCloskey, Robert Green. American Conservatism in the Age of Enterprise 1865–1910: A Study of William Graham Sumner, Stephen J. Field, and Andrew Carnegie. New York: Harper, 1964. Print.
  • Sumner, William Graham. On Liberty, Society and Politics: The Essential Essays of William Graham Sumner. Ed. Robert C. Bannister. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1992. Print.
Categories: History Content