By Nick Massey
September 7, 2021

The forgotten man always pays

Learn about William Graham Sumner, a former professor of Yale, had to say in 1883 and how it can be applied to today.

In 1883, Yale Professor of Political Economy and Sociology William Graham Sumner wrote an essay that could easily have been written for today. He wrote against the so-called “progressives” of his day and defended what was then called “classical liberalism.”

The progressives of that day could be compared to what some consider “liberal” today and the latter—“free market capitalists” of today. His essay was titled, “The Forgotten Man.”

Professor Sumner was essentially saying that well-intentioned social progressives often forced unaware average citizens into paying for what many considered questionable social projects. Sumner wrote:

“As soon as “A” observes something which seems to him to be wrong, from which “X” is suffering, “A” talks it over with “B.”

“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 the better case, what “A,” “B,” and “C” shall do for “X.” But, what about “C”?

There was nothing wrong with “A” and “B” helping “X.” What was wrong was the law and the indenturing of “C” to the cause. What I want to do is look up “C.” I want to show you what manner of man he is. I call him the “forgotten man.” He is the man who never is thought of, the forgotten man. He works, he votes, generally, he prays—but he always pays.”

For those burdened by the politically correct language of today and feel offended, we must point out that the term “man” in times prior to 20 years or so ago in this context was a generic term meaning men and women or mankind in general.

To put it more simply, let’s fix somebody’s perceived problem and make someone else pay for it. Does this theme sound vaguely familiar? In Sumner’s day, the idea of forcing taxpayers into paying for entitlements or social projects was largely unheard of. Today, it is the norm. Of course, the Federal Government was almost insignificant in size compared to the private sector then.

Prior to 1932, federal spending was still a small percentage of the national economy. This time period was the beginning of the progressive movement that has grown and morphed into something today that Sumner could never have imagined. Today, we have endless arguments over whether this is a good thing or not.

In 1932, when Franklin Roosevelt was running for office, he found the “forgotten man” phrase and used it in his campaign. However, he changed the meaning. Roosevelt’s forgotten man was the “forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid,” and he promised he would act to assist this man. Roosevelt’s New Deal Forgotten Man was the poor man, the old man, the laborer, or any other recipient of government aid.

Roosevelt’s ideas on behalf of this version of the forgotten man started a new type of politics. To justify giving to one forgotten man, he had to make a scapegoat of another. Businessmen, businesses, and the so-called “rich” became the targets. Sound familiar again?

The real forgotten man, however, was not part of any political group, therefore suffering the negatives of the time.
Bloomberg columnist, Amity Shlaes, wrote a terrific book by the same title in 2007. She wrote in her book, “He was the man who paid for the big projects who got make work instead of real work. He was the man who waited for economic growth that did not come. He was the man who was trying to get along without welfare while the weight of the economic burden fell upon him.”

Why do I bring this up? As we are all dealing with the hate and political divisiveness of today, and opposing forces with opposing ideas, it might be a good idea to keep some of this in mind. We are full speed ahead into a season of promises and lies. This is the time when all politicians tell you how things ought to be, who should be helped, and how they are going to make it happen. It always sounds so good. Who wouldn’t be for all the wonderful things promised and the utopian life we all want and deserve? After all, didn’t the Declaration of Independence say that we were entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Notice that it says “pursuit,” not “guarantee,” and it says nothing about a guarantee of prosperity.

T.S. Eliot once wrote, “Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” It seems the U.S. financial system is bound and determined to find out.

While my views on this subject may be well-known, you need to decide for yourself what is right. I suggest you step back for a moment and really think about what is being promised by everyone. Then, ask yourself, “Who pays and how?” In most cases, you will realize that the forgotten man pays.

As Sumner said, “He works, he votes, but he always pays.” Who is the forgotten man or woman today? It’s you! Consider your future votes carefully.

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About Nick Massey

Nick Massey is a retired financial advisor and CFP, and former President of Massey Financial Services. He can be reached at