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William Graham Sumner on the “do-nothing” state vs. ”the meddling” state (1888)

The American sociologist William Graham Sumner (1840-1910) distinguished between an older conception of the state, as a “do nothing” state, and a newer conception which was beginning to appear in the late 1880s, where there was constant “meddling and fussing and regulating”:

If a state well performed its functions of providing peace, order and security, as conditions under which the people could live and work, it would be the proudest proof of its triumphant success that it had nothing to do — that all went so smoothly that it had only to look on and was never called to interfere; just as it is the test of a good business man that his business runs on smoothly and prosperously while he is not harassed or hurried. The people who think that it is proof of enterprise to meddle and “fuss” may believe that a good state will constantly interfere and regulate, and they may regard the other type of state as “non-government.”

Here we have a complete illustration of one mode of looking at human society, or at a state. Such society is, on this view, an artificial or mechanical product. It is an object to be molded, made, produced by contrivance. Like every product which is brought out by working up to an ideal instead of working out from antecedent truth and fact, the product here is hap hazard, grotesque, false. Like every other product which is brought out by working on lines fixed by à priori assumptions, it is a satire on human foresight and on what we call common sense. Such a state is like a house of cards, built up anxiously one upon another, ready to fall at a breath, to be credited at most with naive hope and silly confidence; or, it is like the long and tedious contrivance of a mischievous school-boy, for an end which has been entirely mis-appreciated and was thought desirable when it should have been thought a folly; or, it is like the museum of an alchemist, filled with specimens of his failures, monuments of mistaken industry and testimony of an erroneous method; or, it is like the clumsy product of an untrained inventor, who, instead of asking “what means have I, and to what will they serve?” asks: “what do I wish that I could accomplish?” and seeks to win steps by putting in more levers and cogs, increasing friction and putting the solution ever further off.

Of course such a notion of a state is at war with the conception of a state as a seat of original forces which must be reckoned with all the time; as an organism whose life will go on any how, perverted, distorted, diseased, vitiated as it may be by obstructions or coercions; as a seat of life in which nothing is ever lost, but every antecedent combines with every other and has its share in the immediate resultant, and again in the next resultant, and so on indefinitely; as the domain of activities so great that they should appall any one who dares to interfere with them; of instincts so delicate and self-preservative that it should be only infinite delight to the wisest man to see them come into play, and his sufficient glory to give them a little intelligent assistance. If a state well performed its functions of providing peace, order and security, as conditions under which the people could live and work, it would be the proudest proof of its triumphant success that it had nothing to do—that all went so smoothly that it had only to look on and was never called to interfere; just as it is the test of a good business man that his business runs on smoothly and prosperously while he is not harassed or hurried. The people who think that it is proof of enterprise to meddle and “fuss” may believe that a good state will constantly interfere and regulate, and they may regard the other type of state as “non-government.” The state can do a great deal more than to discharge police functions. If it will follow custom, and the growth of social structure to provide for new social needs, it can powerfully aid the production of structure by laying down lines of common action, where nothing is needed but some common action on conventional lines; or, it can systematize a number of arrangements which are not at their maximum utility for want of concord; or, it can give sanction to new rights which are constantly created by new relations under new social organizations, and so on.

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In his book Ptotectionism (1888) Sumner argued that the movement to expand tariffs and other protectionist measures was just one example of a new way of looking at the state which was coming into vogue in the late nineteenth century. A new generation of “lawyers, editors, littérateurs and professional politicians” had seized control of the administration and were busy meddling, fussing, and regulating all kinds of economic activity. They did this because they thought of the the economy as “an object to be molded, made, produced by contrivance” not as a growing organism which had its own set of rules. Not matter what these new economic regulators did, in Sumner’s view they were like so many “mischievous school-boys”, “alchemists”, or “untrained inventors” who tinkered with the economy, instead of seeing it as “a seat of original forces which must be reckoned with all the time; as an organism whose life will go on any how, perverted, distorted, diseased, vitiated as it may be by obstructions or coercions.” His recommendation was to go back to an older conception of the state, as a nightwatchman state which looked after “peace, order and security” and did nothing concerning anything else.

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