Monthly Archives: September 2014

Sumner and Carnegie: Wealth Inequality

I found the most interesting aspect of William Graham Sumner’s piece to be his discussion of the contradictory theories of class relations: There are some who, in their opposition towards wealth inequality and the social classes it creates, argue that they not only have the right to pursue happiness, but that they deserve to get it.   This mindset does nothing to eliminate the class system that these people believe exists. If anything, it further distinguishes society as two separate groups, those who provide aid and those who receive it.

I partly agree with Sumner’s argument. Although I believe every person should be entitled to (at the very least) a basic standard of living, the search for equality often causes us to ignore the interests of all those involved. As Sumner writes, “In their eagerness to recommend the less fortunate classes to pity and consideration they forget all about the rights of other classes…they invent new theories of property, distorting rights and perpetuating injustice” (pgs. 20-21).

Sumner’s stance on inequality differs from that of Andrew Carnegie, who believed it was the responsibility of the rich to distribute their excess wealth for the good of society. Carnegie, who immigrated to the United States from Scotland at age 12, had a more modest upbringing than Sumner. This certainly influenced his viewpoints on wealth and the class system in America. In addition, Carnegie believed that inequality was an inevitable byproduct of social evolution beyond human control. I actually think Sumner would agree with Carnegie on this point. Sumner was a supporter of the theories of Social Darwinism and was a strong proponent of laissez-faire capitalism.