Opening the 2014 S-USIH on Thursday October 9, is a plenary entitled, The Ideology Problem in Teaching and Scholarship. Among the panelists is a surprise addition, Rick Perlstein, author most recently of The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise […]
The 2014 USIH Conference schedule is almost ready for release! In the meantime, we wanted to draw attention to few of the events we have planned: On Thursday night, the conference will open with a plenary on THE IDEOLOGY PROBLEM […]
We are pleased to announce our selection of Ajay K. Mehrotra’s Making the Modern American Fiscal State: Law, Politics, and the Rise of Progressive Taxation, 1877-1929 (Cambridge University Press, 2013) as this year’s winner of the S-USIH annual book award […]
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Every year in my American Social Thought course, I teach the debate over laissez faire economics between William Graham Sumner and Lester Frank Ward. One of my favorite, admittedly small, aspects of this argument is that both Sumner and Ward accuse their opponents of nihilism. Arguing against attempts to mitigate economic inequality, Sumner warned in 1881:
[T]he thirst for luxurious enjoyment, when brought into connection with the notions of rights, of power, and of equality, and dissociated from the notions of industry and economy, produces the notion that a man is robbed of his rights if he has not everything that he wants, and that he is deprived of equality if he sees anyone have more than he has, and that he is a fool if, having power of the State in his hands, he allows this state of things to last. Then we have socialism, communism, and nihilism; and the fairest conquest of civilization, with all their promise of solid good to man, on the sole conditions of virtue and wisdom, may be scattered to the winds in a war of classes, or trampled underfoot by the mob which can only hate what it cannot enjoy.
Ward, for his part, opined in 1884 that laissez faire was itself nihilistic:
There has . . . been developing of late a more or less marked apprehension with regard ot the possible consequences of this mode of thought. The feeling is distinct in the best minds, and to a large extend in the public mind, that the tendency of modern ideas is nihilistic. It is clear that if they become universally accepted they must work stagnation in society. The laissez faire doctrine is a gospel of inaction, the scientific creed is struck with sterility, the policy of resigning all into the hands of Nature is a surrender.
What can we make of the fact that both these thinkers essentially accuse each other of nihilism? (more…)