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Ode to the Odious: A Poet Ridicules Laissez-Faire

In the late 19th century, William Graham Sumner, an Episcopal minister turned academic sociologist, applied Darwin’s scientific ideas of evolution to the social sphere to produce his theory of the economic survival of the fittest. Sumner’s writings justified government inaction in the face of vast social dislocations caused by rapid industrialization and the periodic economic depressions that accompanied it. Critics of the new industrial order rejected the rigid “laws” propounded by Sumner and other conservative social scientists. They countered with their own laws of social development based on alternative readings of nature and science. Some labor thinkers proposed a sort of working-class social Darwinism, which challenged the ideas of conservatives. Other critics simply greeted the ideas of conservatives with derision. Phillips Thomson’s 1878 poem, “The Political Economist and the Tramp,” poked fun at the social Darwinism championed by conservatives who preferred to believe that the working class was fated to be perpetually bested by the “fitter” middle class.

Walking along a country road,

While yet the morning air was damp,

As unreflecting, on I strode,

I marked approach the frequent tramp.

The haggard, ragged careworn man

Accosted me with plaintive tone,

“I must have food—” he straight began;

“Vile miscreant,” I cried, "begone!

Tis contrary to every rule

That I my fellows should assist;

I’m of the scientific school,

Political economist.

Dost thou know, deluded one,

What Adam Smith has clearly proved,

That 'tis self-interest alone

by which the wheels of life are moved?

This competition is the law

By which we either live or die;

I’ve no demand thy labor for,

Why, then, should I thy wants supply?

And Herbert Spencer’s active brain

Shows how the social struggle ends;

The weak die out the strong remain;

'Tis this that nature’s plan intends.

Now really 'tis absurd of you

To think I’d interfere at all;

Just grasp the scientific view,

The weakest must go to the wall."

My words impressed his dormant thought;

“How wise,” he said, "'tis nature’s plan;

Henceforth I’ll practice what you’ve taught

And be a scientific man.

We are alone—no other near

Or even within hailing distance;

I’ve a good club now right here

We’ll have struggle for existence.

The weak must die, the strong survive,

Let’s see who’ll prove the harder hittest;

So if you wish to keep alive

Prepare to prove yourself the fittest.

If you decline the test to make

And doubt your chances of survival,

Your watch and pocketbook I’ll take,

As competition strips the rival."

What could I do but yield the point,

Though conscious of no logic blunder;

And as I quaked in every joint,

The tramp departed with his plunder.

Source: Phillips Thompson, “The Political Economist and the Tramp,” Labor Standard (New York), 14 December 1878.

See Also:"The Rich Are Good-Natured": William Graham Sumner Defends the Wealthy
What's Good for the Goose. . . : Labor and the Theory of Evolution