Social Process

Chapter 20: Economic Factors; The Classes Above Poverty

Charles Horton Cooley

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IN order to discuss the economic factors affecting the propagation of different types of men it may be well to divide the population roughly into three classes: the well-to-do at one extreme, those in actual want at the other, and the vast intermediate class who come under neither description. Such a division is arbitrary, but may serve to indicate certain influences bearing upon our question. Let us include in the first, families whose income is $2,000 or more, in the second, those whose income is less than $600, and in the third, families whose income is between these amounts.[1]

The first class is the successful class. judged by pecuniary standards, and includes not only prosperous business men, but the better paid of the professional class, and of men living on salaries. The prevailing tendency in this part of society, subject of course to many exceptions and modifications, appears to be to sacrifice the size of the family to other interests. This is the class which easily

(219) forms habits of luxury, and develops costly and exacting ideals regarding the nurture and education of its children. For the money spent upon them no pecuniary return is expected, and the hardship and responsibility inseparable from the rearing of a family appear greater by contrast with habits of ease. It is also in this class that personal choice is most cultivated, and the sophistication that applies this to limiting the number of children, so that, although the death-rate is low, the birth-rate is scarcely sufficient to offset it. Relatively to other and more prolific parts of the population the stocks represented in this class may be regarded as tending to decline.[2]

The biological significance of this depends upon the value of these stocks, upon what distinctive biological traits, if any, are to be found in well-to-do families as a group. The prevalent view among eugenic writers, led by Galton, has been that the successful class, on the whole, represents the ablest stocks, and that eugenic progress depends mainly upon securing a high rate of increase among them. Galton himself held that all other eugenic aims were of secondary importance. It should be noted, however, that he did not propose to measure success merely by income, but rather by established reputation among the group best able to judge of a particular kind of merit. His eugenic aristocracy would consist, for example, of those lawyers, artists, men of letters, men of science, and even of those skilled artisans, who are regarded by their colleagues as able men of their kind. The business group would no doubt be included but would not be allowed an importance at all corresponding to its wealth. At the apex of this aristocracy would be men of

(220) genius, the test of genius being great and enduring reputation.[3]

This view of the eugenic superiority of the successful class, in conjunction with the smallness of the families in this class, has led to pessimistic views regarding the future of the race. Some writers hold that civilization necessarily exhausts a stock, that such exhaustion has been the main cause of the decay of great nations in the past, and that the process was never so rapid as in our own time. Others think that, although the decline is real, it has not yet gone very far, and that we may be saved from it by a rational eugenics.

The argument that civilization, especially modern civilization, tends to race deterioration is simple and, to say the least, plausible. Civilization selects the best stocks and uses them up. The ablest types of men, incited by ambition, achieve success and carry on the more intellectual and exhausting functions of the social order. At the same time their success subjects them to the upper-class conditions of luxury and exacting ideals. The result is infecundity of the successful class, and of the superior stocks which it represents. The best grain is eaten and the next crop raised from inferior seed.

This process may be peculiarly rapid in a democracy like ours, because it is our tendency, and indeed our ideal, to make the rise of natural ability as free and rapid as possible. When life in general was traditional, functions inherited or customary, and opportunity confined to a few, the process by which natural ability rose to the top and evaporated was slow and uncertain. But now, with

( 221) our universal spurring of ambition, our racial resources are rapidly spent, and, short of a change in the ideals and way of life of the successful class, it is not apparent how they can be saved.[4]

The opinion upon which all this depends, that the successful class represents the best stocks, is, however, open to question. One criticism of it is that opportunity and success are still mainly a matter of privilege rather than of natural ability; and many assert that in spite of our ideal of equal opportunity the ascendancy of privilege is increasing, and that nothing short of a revolution can overthrow it. If this view is at all correct it undermines the whole idea that the present successful class represents an aristocracy of natural ability, or has especial eugenic significance of any kind.

It is worth noting, however, that one may allow much present dominance of privilege, but hold that, in spite of it, there is a continuous flow of able stocks toward the top, so that the upper strata probably have a considerable eugenic superiority. And if we believe that improvements in education are increasing opportunity as against privilege, this superiority should be growing. In that case it would be a great object to insure fecundity in these strata.

Another line of criticism would question whether the hereditary traits that make for success, as we now understand it, are after all the ones we need to increase. Many feel a lively dissatisfaction with the people who rule our economic and political institutions; they are criticised as selfish, unsocial, predatory. "The successful man, it

( 222) is alleged, is not a success." Indeed, as a matter of theory, it is by no means clear that those who gain the economic prizes are those who are doing most for the welfare of the race. The question might be put in this way: Is not the desirable type the Christian type, using the term to designate those who are swayed by a large fellowfeeling? And is the successful type conspicuously Christian? The affirmative of this does not seem very evident. "Many that are first shall be last."

Besides selfish ambition, there are other traits that might push a man upward but not be desirable to increase. Is not the successful class deficient in domestic impulses? They appear to be unprolific, and this may indicate that the instincts are weak, causing the sacrifice of family life to ambition. Perhaps the infecundity of this class is only the wholesome elimination of an unsocial type. The best type of man may be too broadly human for economic success.

On the other hand, there is good sense in the view that success is usually attained by qualities of general value, such as energy, initiative, tenacity, and intelligence; and that, so far as it is accompanied by selfishness, lack of domesticity, and the like, we may ascribe this rather to environment than to any defect in the hereditary type. There is much in success to make a man selfish.

The eugenic superiority of the upper economic class may also be questioned on the ground that the conditions for maintaining a superior stock are not so good in this class as in a less prosperous part of society. The tests are, not so rigid; people who are supported by inherited wealth may raise families whether they have shown any natural ability or not. Their position is somewhat like that of the chronic paupers at the other economic extreme,

( 223) who raise degenerate families by the aid of charity. Certainly there are many marriages of the sons and daughters of the rich which do not seem based on personal merit, either biologic or social.

I suppose the reader will feel, as I do, that it is hardly possible, in view of these conflicting considerations, to form any precise idea of the relative eugenic value of the upper economic class. My own impression, derived mainly from general observation, is that it does, after all, contain a large number of exceptionally able families, many of which are becoming unprolific under the influences of prosperity. If we can increase the fecundity of such families by diffusing a higher sense of race obligation we shall be doing excellent work for the next generation.

If we embrace in the intermediate class those who maintain themselves in tolerable comfort, but only by steady work and close economy, never being able to accumulate much surplus, it is by far the largest class of the three, and one in which the conditions of survival seem favorable to the increase of good types. The excess of births over deaths is greater than among the upper class, on the one hand, or among the misery class on the other.

The measure of success attained requires solid qualities, such as intelligence and tenacity, in as great measure, often, as a more brilliant career; and as there is no inherited "independence," these must be kept in constant operation. Helpmates and "good providers" are appreciated in marriage, though sexual intuitions also play a large part. Domestic sentiment is strong and seldom overshadowed by extravagant ambition.

It seems that the selection of types and the maintenance

( 224) of a sound eugenic standard-so far as it is maintained -- is chiefly accomplished here. Writers on eugenics have given most of their attention to extremes, as Galton in his work on Hereditary Genius, and Dugdale and later writers in monographs on degenerate families; but while conditions in these extremes are important they probably count less than those in the far more numerous intermediate class. Galton's argument that the paramount eugenic object is to increase the fecundity of the highly successful types rests entirely upon his premise that these types have an all-around superiority proportionate to their success. If we reject this and deny that it is possible to locate the source of future supermen in a small class, then the "plain people" deserve our chief attention. The type of man that can and will raise a family under medium conditions is the type that must prevail in numbers, and there is little reason to doubt that this is, on the whole, a good type, or rather a variety of good types. The mass of men we wish to be, first of all, well-proportioned in mind and body, with health, sound nerves, intelligence, perseverance, adaptability, and strong social impulses. All these are qualities favorable to normal success and fecundity.

The higher evolution of the hereditary type is also, in my judgment, to be looked for mainly through the slow working of the requirements for mediocre success. If the conditions of life are changing in such a manner as to require greater intelligence, initiative, stability, and force of character, as it seems to me likely that they are, it would seem that these traits, so far as they are hereditary, should be increased by the process of selection actually going on. In this way we may hope that the human stock will improve in the future as it probably has in the

( 225) past. A higher type of society develops a higher type of man to work it, biological as well as social. This view is somewhat speculative, as I am aware that there is no proof that the breed of men has changed at all during historic time,[5] but it seems to me the most probable speculation.

And, as regards practical eugenics, I should say that one of our main aims should be to uphold the comparatively healthy influences dominant in the great intermediate class, as against the demoralizing ideals prevalent among the rich.


  1. According to the estimates of W. I. King, in his Wealth and Income of the People of the United States, the number of families in each of these classes, excluding single men and women, would have been, In 1910: Well-to-do families, 1,437,190; families in want, 1,870,000; families in an intermediate state, 14,970,000. See Chap. IX, Table XLIII, from which these figures am computed.
  2. See the three articles on Race Suicide in the United States, by W. B. Thompson, The Scientific Monthly. July, August. and September, 1917.
  3. Galton's practical eugenic programme is given in Sociological Papers (an early publication of the English Sociological Society), vol. 1, 45 ff. For the general argument, see his Hereditary Genius.
  4. The view that race degenerates under civilization is developed at length and with much pessimistic ardor by G. Vacher de Lapouge In his work, Les sélection sociales.
  5. Apart from the mixture of races, or changes in their relative numbers

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