I am writing this post while sitting in the Café Strada near the Berkeley campus and as usual the café is crowded with students doing their homework. Next to me are three young women animatedly discussing their answers to a social studies question on welfare benefits. I long to interrupt their discussion and tell them about the forgotten man.
Those of you familiar with the phrase ‘the forgotten man’ will probably associate it with Franklin D. Roosevelt, who invoked it in a 1932 radio address when he spoke about “the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid.” However the phrase was originally used by Yale University Professor William Graham Sumner to mean something quite different. In a book published in 1876 Sumner wrote:
“As soon as A observes something which seems to him wrong, from which X is suffering, A talks it over with B, and A and B then propose to get a law passed to remedy the evil and help X. Their law always proposes to determine what C shall do for X, or, in better case, what A, B, and C shall do for X… What I want to do is to look up C… I call him the forgotten man… He is the man who never is thought of.”
Nowadays A is probably a lobbying group or think tank and B a political entity. A and B usually decide that X’s problem can only be solved if they use C’s resources. When C is compelled to hand over money to B to help X, C is upset and with good reason. After all, C has tried very hard to live within his means, always making sure that he spends less than he earns. This is no easy task as he has had to learn to delay gratification now for the sake of future security. He knows that by doing so he will have more to spend in the future and if the future does not turn out quite as he expects, he will have a financial cushion to fall back upon. Now C has learned that his savings are to be used to support X, who was unable to delay gratification. C believes that if he had ever thought that someone would be available to bail him out of life’s misfortunes, then he would not have struggled so hard to acquire the habits of diligence and thrift that have served him so well. Of course, nobody pays any attention to C. He is the forgotten man.
Now, I would argue that C is not the only forgotten man. X is also forgotten, not in abstract terms but certainly in concrete ones. In his book ‘Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed’, Yale Professor of Political Science and Anthroplogy, James C. Scott, describes how the state only sees what it wants to see for the purposes of standardization, control and measurement, with predictably disastrous results for its attempts at social engineering. For example, the state might ‘see’ a row of relatively high priced, inefficient, inner city retail outlets ripe for demolition and replacement with a shiny new mall. What the state does not see is that the shopkeepers are also unpaid social workers, providing companionship and special services to their regular customers who stop for smiles, pleasantries and brief chats on a variety of mundane issues. X’s problems may or may not be of his own making but the state cannot really know or understand X or X’s problems as you and I can, it can only attempt to control and measure him, make a statistic out of him.
Society used to swarm with voluntary associations designed to personally understand and help the X’s of this world. People took pride in volunteering and getting to know the people they were helping. The Oxford English Dictionary gives, as the original definition of compassion, “suffering together with another, participation in suffering.” As Marvin Olasky notes in his book ‘The Tragedy of American Compassion’, “The emphasis was on personal involvement with the needy, suffering with them, not just giving to them.” As state power has waxed so social power has waned and personal involvement has been replaced with the welfare check. Maybe it’s time we remembered the forgotten man – both of them.
“The forgotten man…He works, he votes, generally he prays, but his chief business in life is to pay.” William Graham Sumner