In the age of competitive victimhood, power lies in proving that you are more victimised than the other victims. This can be achieved by complaining louder and more effectively than the other complainers. The forgotten man in this context is the person who goes through life quietly, complaining about nothing, and gets sadly left behind because he has failed to hone his complaining skills. This is a very risky position to find yourself in. It results in being overlooked when public policy is formulated.
In his essay on the forgotten man, Sumner evokes the ways in which people impose their view of the social 'ideal' on others, usually by lobbying for laws that will force everyone to implement their personal opinion on what's best for society.
If two people, A and B, think of something that would be really great for society, do they go ahead and take action to try to achieve it? Well, no. Instead they lobby for a new law that will make it mandatory for other people to work towards that goal. This is where the skill of complaining comes in. The most effective way to lobby for new laws is by complaining about one form of victimhood or another.
Adopting Sumner's script, A and B would be the complainers. There are two important features of this script.
First, observe that A and B are not complaining on their own behalf: no, they are complaining on behalf of X. X represents the 'poor' community, the 'needy' community, the 'exploited' community, etc. This provides rich material to derive very many effective complaints that will in turn inspire many new laws affecting all aspects of modern life, especially if they can find someone from said community willing to be presented as an example of the grievance being highlighted.
Second, A and B are not asking for permission to take action to help X: no, they are lobbying for other people (innocent person C) to be forced to do something to help X. A and B are not volunteering to contribute their own money to solve X's problems: no, they are arguing that everyone including C should pay higher taxes to be used to help X.
A and B are able to achieve many benefits and advantages for themselves through filing complaints about the treatment of X. Every time you see them, they are on their way to complain about something else that has happened to X. They are very successful at what they do, and it brings great power and influence to their lives. This is because of their moral superiority. Notice that they are not complaining to improve things for themselves, but for some other person 'X'. The selflessness is staggering.
This explains why when you file a lawsuit you need to stand on the courtroom steps and say 'I brought this action so that nobody else has to suffer, and the world can become fairer for everyone'. Nobody files lawsuits to advance their own private position, obviously, because that would be selfish. It is done 'to remedy the evil and help X'.
That would not be so bad, were it not for the externalities they impose on C, the forgotten man who in this case is quietly going about his business, paying no attention to the moaners and whiners who surround him at every turn, only to find that the complainers have lobbied for new rules and procedures that are binding upon C! Oh dear. What now.
C is like Bastiat's 'third person who is always in the shadow...personifying
what is not seen.'
In this scenario it makes sense for C to abandon his productive activities and immediately become a complainer too, so as not to get left behind. He will be like Bastiat's unseen manufacturer whose industry quietly pays the price for the visible gains that emerge from helping the selected favoured industries. He had better find a nice policy group to lobby on his behalf, make some complaints that he too has suffered.
If C doesn't engage in social speculation he'll find that others have done so on his behalf, so it's better if he joins the fray and tries to push forward his own social reforms. At least that way he'll participate in forming the rules and procedures that will be binding on himself and also on all the other people who had nothing to do with the matter. That's the beauty of democracy: everyone gets an opportunity to complain and impose their opinions on other people. Law becomes the enemy of liberty, but we don't mind because at least it supplies an avenue for complainers to achieve some power in this life and promote their own pet grievances.
This is why people fly into a panic when they see others around them complaining. Nobody wants to be the forgotten man. The urge to start complaining becomes irresistible when everyone around you is doing it and reaping huge rewards for their efforts. Later in life, you want to be able to look back at the path you have travelled and proudly say "I filed my fair share of complaints".
Rallying people around you is also a superior way of complaining - why complain on your own when you could get all your friends to complain too? Spread the joy, your friends will thank you for it when their complaints are upheld. If you can organise a rally and wave banners, even better.
In this way we construct a society where progress depends on how loudly you can complain, and out-complain the other complainers.
Sumner's vision of an alternative path involves industry, economy and virtue. Observe that such pursuits take up a huge amount of time and leave no spare moments for complaining.
Complaining is attractive because it provides an easier path to achieving power and influence, one that doesn't involve a huge amount of actual hard work.
Human beings are constantly jostling for power and position, pushing others aside and trying to promote their own tribe. Everybody who complains about being victimised is sure to have good grounds for their complaint. No social group has a monopoly on bad behaviour, and thus social fortunes are constantly rising and waning, with first one group then another feeling ignored and overlooked when favours are being dished out.
Being able to shift the burdens of your own life onto the shoulders of other people is a seriously tempting proposition.
This is why the circle of competitive complaining is never-ending. It's a way of shifting responsibility onto other people.
Sumner's conception of liberty leaves no room for understanding the world as a place where the best way to achieve your goals is by complaining that other people must supply you with the stuff you want.
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