The Forgotten Man

December 10, 2012

Charity, Economics

The Forgotten ManI 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

, , , ,

About Malcolm Greenhill

Malcolm Greenhill is President of Sterling Futures, a fee-based financial advisory firm, based in San Francisco. I write about wealth related issues in the broadest sense of the word. When I am not writing, reading, working and spending time with family, I try to spend as much time as possible backpacking in the wilderness.

View all posts by Malcolm Greenhill


Subscribe to our RSS feed and social profiles to receive updates.

20 Comments on “The Forgotten Man”

  1. Michael R. Edelstein Says:

    When the State makes war, the forgotten man consists of all the foreign innocents whose lives are destroyed or snuffed out by the invading military, often U.S. sponsored.

    Thanks, Malcolm, for remembering the forgotten man.


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Michael, thank you. The innocent victims of war are certainly forgotten men. The U.S. is larger than most countries, and consequently has more overseas entanglements, but I don’t see it as being much better or worse than other states in this regard.


  2. A Gripping Life Says:

    Great post. You would be an excellent teacher, Malcom. You make these topics so easy to understand. Thank you.


  3. johnrchildress Says:

    Malcolm: great to have your clear insights on these important issues.


  4. chr1 Says:

    Malcolm, thanks for the post. Well understood concepts and clear writing.


  5. Robert-preneur Says:

    Great post Malcom. Your knowledge on these issues shows great depth and I appreciate in you what I consider to be a scholarly mind.
    A tragic aspect of government involvement in social improvements is the self-interest and cronyism involved. Well connected developers love new social improvements.


  6. Malcolm Greenhill Says:

    Robert, thank you. You are exactly right about the cronyism. After the Jack Abramoff affair it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that virtually our entire system of government depends on cronyism and would collapse without it!


  7. Robert-preneur Says:

    Malcolm, yours is one of the blogs I nominated for Blog of the Year. You really are an excellent writer and you know your stuff. Please stop by and see the nominations and the rules for nomination. You deserve recognition my good man!


  8. johnrchildress Says:

    Malcolm: I have nominated you for the 2012 Blog of the Year award. See my recent blog posting: You are under no obligation to accept, but should you, then attached is the suggested procedure. Most importantly, keep writing such great blogs about real life and your insights. The rules for “paying it forward” and nominating other blogs for 2012 Blog of the Year Award can be found at The Thought Palette:


  9. johnrchildress Says:

    Malcolm: I have nominated you for another blogger award. Family of Bloggers.

    If you choose to accept this award, the guidelines can be found here.

    All the best.


  10. Peggy Says:

    “The shrill gloats and exultatios of A [the welfare parasite], who has got something for nothing, drown out the repining of B [the taxpayer] who has lost something that he earned. B, in fact, becomes officially disreputable, and the more he complains the more he is denounced and detested. He is moved, it appears, by a kind of selfishness which is incompatible with true democracy. He actually believes that his property is his own, to remain in his keeping until he chooses to part with it. He is told at once that his information on point is innaccurate, and his morals more than dubious. In an idal democracy, he learns, property is at the disposal, not of its owners, but of politicians, and the chief business of politicians is to collar it by fair means or foul, and redistribute it to those whose votes have put them in office.”

    –H.L Mencken, Baltimore Sun, May 12, 1940, in A Second Mencken Chrestomathy (1995), pp. 48-49


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: