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Forgetting “The Forgotten Man”

In his inaugural address Donald Trump channeled an old trope —the forgotten man—although he updated it to “the forgotten men and women.” He asserted that his whole program was for those forgotten by Washington for decades.

But an important portion of the program for helping the forgotten man is in substantial tension with views of the man who originally introduced the phrase into the political lexicon. He was William Graham Sumner, a Yale professor of economics and 19th century classical liberal. For Sumner, the forgotten man was the citizen who was called on to shoulder the burdens of government’s social engineering. Here is Sumner’s most pertinent paragraph on his forgotten man:

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 . . .  What I want to do is to look up C.  I want to show you what manner of man he is. I call him the Forgotten Man. . . .  He works, he votes, generally he prays—but he always pays.

In his inaugural, Trump was also more explicit about his trade policy than usual: “Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.” But putting up tariffs to protect industries is an excellent example of how Sumner’s forgotten man is harmed. First, the reaction of other nations to our new tariffs will be to put up tariffs themselves. Such trade barriers harm the forgotten exporters and all who work for them. Second, American consumers are forgotten, like the student on a budget who needs cheap clothes, because trade has reduced prices for basic goods, like clothing. In fact, the import of mass-produced goods is largely responsible over the last decades for decreasing the cost living for people of modest means relative to the better off, who buy more bespoke goods.

Thus, my greatest concern about President Trump’s address is that many forgotten men and women will remain forgotten in the President’s effort to focus on improving the lost of a group of Americans who helped put him into office. A central part of his program, to use Sumner’s algebra, restricts the freedom of C in order to help X. And my more general fear is that Trump’s economic policy will intervene in the market to help some at the expense of others. It is underscored by the absence of any substantial praise of freedom in the entire speech.

To be fair, for the forgotten man, many of President’s appointments have been far better than his words because these appointees want to decrease domestic regulation and social engineering. And his executive order to ease the burdens of Obamacare to the extent permitted by law is surely something of which Sumner would have approved. But the President’s inaugural came from the heart and it is not the heart of a classical liberal.

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