Samuel Smiles’ Condemnation of the Evils of Laissez-Faire

Samuel Smiles was the author of Self-Help, a 19th century manual on how the working classes could escape poverty by helping themselves. He’s been seen as a cornerstone of Conservative values, to whom Maggie Thatcher harked back when she promoted her attack on the welfare state as giving people more self-help. Andrina Stiles’ discusses how Victorian philanthropy is seen by some historians as an attempt to create ‘a docile, subservient working class out of a large, ill-educated and potentially revolutionary mass of people’ and that ‘the whole basis of Victorian involvement in charitable enterprise as an exercise in social control based on Samuel Smiles’ teaching about self-help’ in her book, Religion, Society and Reform 1800-1914 (London, Hodder & Stoughton 1995). But she also states that this view has been challenged by other historians. These argue that while he moderated his views on laissez-faire in later life, he did not believe it adequate to tackle social problems. And she provides as proof a passage from Smiles in which he bitterly condemns it. She writes

But other historians now believe these views to be a travesty of Samuel Smiles’ teaching. Although his book Self-Help was not published until 1859, they point out that its contents had been delivered as a series of lecturers to working-class audiences in Leeds 14 years earlier at a time of social conflict; and that in those lectures Smiles was not preaching quiescence but radicalism. Although he later moderated his political views and came to agree with laissez-faire in economic matters, he never accepted it was the right policy in dealing with social abuses, writing passionately of the need for outside intervention where self-help by the poor was obviously an inadequate remedy:

When typhus or cholera break out they tell us Nobody is to blame. That terrible Nobody… Nobody adulterates our food. Nobody poisons us with bad drink… Nobody leaves towns undrained. Nobody makes thieves, poachers and drunkards. Nobody has a dreadful theory – laissez-faire – leave alone. When people are poisoned with plaster of Paris mixed with their flour ‘let alone’ is the remedy … Let those who can find out when they are cheated. When people live in foul dwellings, let them alone, let wretchedness do its work; do not interfere with death. (p. 98).

So much for Thatcherite ‘Victorian values’. They killed people in the 19th century, and they’re killing them now as the Blairites and the Tories make obtaining welfare benefits for the unemployed and disabled as difficult and humiliating as possible. The result is that over a quarter of a million people are only kept from starvation by food banks, tens of thousands of disabled people have died after being thrown off benefits due to being assessed as fit for work, and there is a chronic housing shortage through Maggie’s determination to sell off council housing and forbid the building of any more.

But the Tories and the Libertarians keep singing the old refrain. Things will be better with more self-help, less state reliance and regulation. Private enterprise and capitalism will make everything better. A few months ago Dave Rubin and Candace Owens of the American right-wing group, Turning Point, tried to convince Brits when they came over to push their vile, outmoded views on this side of the Pond. Libertarianism was devised by extreme right-wing businessmen, most notably the Koch brothers, in order to defend depriving working people of state support and trade union power, whilst enriching big business. It always was close to Nazism. In the 1970s the American Libertarian rag, Reason, even published an issue pushing Holocaust Denial. Over this side of the Atlantic, the Libertarian organisations, like the National Association For Freedom, or the Freedom Association as it became, used to support the South American dictators. This included Paul Staines, of the Guido Fawkes blog, who was a member of one of these societies. One year the guest of honour at their annual dinner was the head of one of Central American dictator Rios Montt’s death squads. When Staines wasn’t out of his head raving with the machine elves on psychoactive chemicals, of course.

Laissez-faire in its Conservative and Libertarian versions brings nothing but poverty, sickness and death to the masses. Smiles knew this and condemned it. But the Thatcherites are still pushing it, because it keeps the poor poor and very much under the control of the rich.

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2 Responses to “Samuel Smiles’ Condemnation of the Evils of Laissez-Faire”

  1. trev Says:

    That “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” attitude is all very well but the Government have taken away the boots and the straps. The Tories really don’t care one iota whether you or I live or die, and that’s the top and bottom of it. And back in the 1860s Typhoid and Cholera certainly did break out, thousands died in the appalling conditions in large Northern cities like Leeds and Manchester, many of them Irish immigrants living in absolute squalor. My own ancestors came from Co.Antrim and were living in Leeds at that time, I found a reference to (and photograph of) their address in the Leeds Council archives filed under “Unhealthy Areas”.

    • beastrabban Says:

      Yes, the Irish certainly weren’t treated very well. In the 19th century there was the same attitudes towards them then that the racists have towards Blacks now – that they’re responsible for their own poverty, and responsible for crime and disorder. As for unhealthy areas, when the sanitary commissioners went down one street in Bristol in the 1830s researching the squalor there, the street was so foul that they came out vomiting. The bootstrap approach doesn’t work, but that didn’t stop one Prime Minister touring one of the northern cities in the 19th century telling a working class crowd that they all had it within their power to better themselves.Same old rubbish Cameron, Tweezer, Johnson and Thatcher have been telling people for over forty years. And they don’t care if ordinary people live or die. What matters to them is that the public don’t realise they don’t care. Hence their determination to stop people like Mike and Disabled People Against Cuts getting hold of the figures for the numbers of disabled people they’ve killed.

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