Missing Person

“The type and formula of most schemes of philanthropy or humanitarianism is this,” wrote William Graham Sumner in 1883: “A and B put their heads together to decide what C shall be made to do for D. The radical vice of all these schemes, from a sociological point of view, is that C is not allowed a voice in the matter, and his position, character, and interests, as well as the ultimate effects on society through C’s interests, are entirely overlooked. I call C the Forgotten Man.”

Graham’s formula is simple, compelling — and wrong.

In any voluntary scheme of philanthropy or humanitarianism, C’s ability to refuse support or service to the scheme is key. With that support or service, the scheme may succeed. Without it, the scheme fails from the start.

That’s why your mailbox is always full of letters urging contributions to this or that charitable organization. You’re the C who’s being asked to fund A and B’s project to cure D’s cancer or provide a laptop to D’s poor children.

In fact, it’s quite likely that A and B lavish more attention, and spend more money, on you as an actual or prospective C than they do on their chosen D. Many organizations spend as much money raising money from a multitude of Cs as they spend on serving the needs of their chosen Ds.

Provided that the solicited Cs regard the object of the exercise (some service to the identified Ds) as worthy or valuable and make their contributions voluntarily, and provided that no fraud is involved, this is all well and good.

The essence of government “scheme[s] of philanthropy or humanitarianism,” however, is encapsulated in the “made to do” clause in Graham’s formula. This clause makes C no more, and in some ways, less, forgettable.

Perpetual mass muggings are likely to rouse large numbers of the mugged (the Cs) to defensive or retaliatory action, even if the muggings are advertised as supporting the delivery of needed sustenance to some deserving Ds. No government could long survive on such a bald assertion of intent or undisguised method of operation.

Over time, the devotees of the state have developed a modus operandi for milking C without inspring such a rebellion — a method which requires them to convince C that he’s not merely C, but rather A, B, C and D all rolled into one.

“Yes,” C is told, “you must pay taxes. But these taxes are levied on you by you. You’re represented in government, and you’re given a voice in who acts as your representative. You are not merely C, but also A and B.”

“Yes,” the politician says, “the money taken from you is used for the benefit of many people. You are among those people. You are not merely C, but also D.”

If C plays along with these fictions of state, he’ll find that those fictions correspond only loosely to the operations of voluntary “scheme[s] of philanthropy or humanitarianism.”

In those voluntary schemes, absent fraud, his contributions as C benefit the Ds he prefers to support, in the way he has chosen to support them.

His fractional A/B representation in the institutions of state, however — even absent the corrupting influences of lobbying by more well-heeled Cs seeking treatment as Ds — is far from certain to carry the day either for his preferences as C or for his putative needs as D. His contributions are fungible and their distribution is determined by the majority of the moment, not by his preferences as a contributor.

C remains C, and involuntarily so. He may not opt out of playing the role of C, even if he chooses to forego his putative, representative A/Bness and the alleged benefits of his Dness. Should he attempt to do so, he’ll likely find himself in a position similar to that of the lamented dead — “gone but not forgotten,” at least by the state’s tax collectors; a missing person only to the extent that he can avoid their attentions.

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