William Graham Sumner wrote:
All schemes for patronizing “the working classes” savor of condescension. They are impertinent and out of place in this free democracy. There is not, in fact, any such state of things or any such relation as would make projects of this kind appropriate. Such projects demoralize both parties, flattering the vanity of one and undermining the self-respect of the other.
Sumner wrote that in 1883, as part of a chapter in his short book What the Social Classes Owe Each Other. The chapter was called “On the Case of a Certain Man Who Is Never Thought Of.” It was republished as a standalone essay with the more memorable title, “The Forgotten Man.”
If you google “The Forgotten Man” you will get around 600 hits for Sumner … and over 18,000 hits for Franklin Delano Roosevelt!
Because on April 7, 1932, Roosevelt gave a now famous radio speech with the same title:
These unhappy times call for the building of plans that rest upon the forgotten, the unorganized but the indispensable units of economic power, for plans like those of 1917 that build from the bottom up and not from the top down, that put their faith once more in the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid.
Obviously, these few minutes tonight permit no opportunity to lay down the ten or a dozen closely related objectives of a plan to meet our present emergency, but I can draw a few essentials, a beginning in fact, of a planned program.
It would be hard to find a writer more opposed to a planned economy than William Graham Sumner. And it would be hard to find someone guiltier than FDR of what Sumner called social and economic quackery, against which, “the obvious injunction to the quacks is, to mind their own business.”
A major point of Sumner’s book is that FDR’s “forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid” isn’t forgotten at all. He is the central focus, at least rhetorically, of all “social doctors” who “enjoy the satisfaction of feeling themselves to be more moral or more enlightened than their fellow men.”
Who is the real forgotten man?
The type and formula of most schemes of philanthropy or humanitarianism is this: A and B put their heads together to decide what C shall be made to do for D. The radical vice of all these schemes, from a sociological point of view, is that C is not allowed a voice in the matter, and his position, character, and interests, as well as the ultimate effects on society through C’s interests, are entirely overlooked. I call C the Forgotten Man.
Was FDR trying to make sure that C remained forgotten? Was he appropriating Sumner’s title in the hope that we’d forget both C and Sumner himself?
The Forgotten Man is not a pauper. It belongs to his character to save something. Hence he is a capitalist, though never a great one. He is a “poor” man in the popular sense of the word, but not in a correct sense. In fact, one of the most constant and trustworthy signs that the Forgotten Man is in danger of a new assault is that “the poor man” is brought into the discussion. Since the Forgotten Man has some capital, anyone who cares for his interest will try to make capital secure by securing the inviolability of contracts, the stability of currency, and the firmness of credit. Anyone, therefore, who cares for the Forgotten Man will be sure to be considered a friend of the capitalist and an enemy of the poor man. [emphasis added]