On Anarchy

by William Graham Sumner (1840-1910)

From Irving Norton Fisher, My Father Irving Fisher (New York: Comet Press, 1956), pp. 43-44:

William Graham Sumner was very well known to the generations of Yale students who attended his courses on the science of society. For many years he enjoyed the reputation of transforming numerous scions of wealthy families from protectionists to free traders, with considerable annoyance on the part of reactionary captains of industry who sent their son to Yale to acquire conservative educations. He coined the phrase “forgotten man” which Franklin Roosevelt later appropriated as a New Deal slogan. He also characterized socialism as a scheme for running everything by a committee, and in the event of its adoption he advised his pupils “to get on that committee.”

Sumner and Fisher remained lifelong mutual admirers, but the extent to which their thinking ultimately diverged may be illustrated by this passage from the latter’s speech on socialism, delivered before the Yale Socialist Club on November 14, 1911:

I believe Sumner was one of the greatest professor we ever had at Yale, but I have drawn far away from his point of view, that of the old laissez faire doctrinaire.

I remember he said in his classroom:

Gentlemen, the time is coming when there will be two great classes, Socialists, and Anarchists. The Anarchists want the government to be nothing, and the Socialists want the government to be everything. There can be no greater contrast. Well, the time will come when there will be only these two great parties, the Anarchists representing the laissez faire doctrine and the Socialists representing the extreme view on the other side, and when that time comes I am an Anarchist.
That amused his class very much, for he was as far from a revolutionary as you could expect. But I would like to say that if that time comes when there are two great parties, Anarchists and Socialists, then I am a Socialist.

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