Thinking For The Individual

Formerly known as 'Thinking For The People', this site offers some reflections on the state of British society and her people from the perspective of a libertarian Conservative with a passionate belief in the pillars of freedom and responsibility.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Self-Help & Philanthropy

In 1859, a man called Samuel Smiles wrote that, ‘The spirit of self-help is the root of all genuine growth in the individual’. One century, two score and six years later, his message remains just as important today for us all as it was in his time, when man achieved great feats, and was rewarded for his own merits and his own strife, and not funded for his own dependence or sloth.

Yet no matter how important his words are today, there can be no escaping the reality that in his era, it was far easier for the individual to live out the true meaning of that creed. His contemporaries were not strained by the pressures of high taxation.

The poor in his society had a reason to live. They grew up knowing the importance of hard work, independence and self-help. They believed in their own strengths. They were not patronised by their government, told day in, day out that they were incapable of leading their own lives, and making their own decisions. They were free to thrive.

And the rich of his society believed that they had a moral duty to protect those who could not protect themselves. They knew the virtues of philanthropy. They knew that they had a responsibility to clothe the naked, to feed the hungry, to shelter the homeless.

Today, however, Samuel Smiles would be ashamed that his belief in the importance of self-help and the duties of the rich has been forgotten by the ravages of time. Nowadays, when the working man earns five pounds, he has to hand over one pound to that bandit Gordon Brown, no questions asked. And if he drives a car, buys a packet of Marlboros or a four-pack of Carling, he has to hand over at least another pound too. How are we supposed to make work preferable to welfare and encourage the poorest in our society to look to their own efforts for the betterment of themselves and their families if a minimum wage family has to hand over its pay packet to a government whose only desire is to patronise and dictate, not let the very same men and women it seeks to protect thrive?

Today, Samuel Smiles would be ashamed by the rich too. In his era, the average middle class family gave 10% of its income to charity. He lived in a society of philanthropists, where the affluent believed that they had a duty to protect those less fortunate than themselves: those who worked hard but still had to struggle to support their families, and those who were too vulnerable to defend themselves. He lived in the same society where Dr Barnardo set up his homes for orphan children, where Thomas Armitage created the National Institute for the Blind, and where any social problem had not an armful of government initiatives to solve it, but dozens of charities, small and large, working to protect those who suffered and to bring an end their problems. He lived in a society where the homeless were protected by the SOS Society, by the Fellowship of St Christopher, by the Society for the Relief of the Houseless Poor, by Homes for Working Boys in London, by the Embankment Fellowship Centre, by the Morning Post Embankment home and by the Wayfarers Benevolent Association, not to mention a tonnage more in the same sphere of social work. He lived in a society where each and every moneyed family lived by the rule that charity never faileth.

And yet the rich of today, of which there are many more who are much richer, are stolen from by the State. They are robbed of their money, because the politicians think they can’t be trusted with it. How is a rich man expected to care for the poor, when the old-fashioned socialist system we have endeavours to make it hard for the rich man to take care of himself? The rich of yesteryear were the landowners and the gentry. They were the self-made men who rose from nothing and worked their way up through the ranks of society. In their place, today’s rich are the multi-millionaire footballers, the actors, the actresses and singers who, often at a tender age, have a profound influence on the next generation of leaders in our society. But if you can find me a Premiership star earning upwards of fifty grand every week of the year who offers the lion’s share of his ridiculously high salary to charity and to the protection of the vulnerable, I will be amazed. Today’s rich waste their money on expensive cars and cheap women. Charity and philanthropy are dirty words; words which many of them might struggle to pronounce. In a Conservative society, the onus must be not on the State, but on charitable, humanitarian individuals to protect the vulnerable. And politicians must not legislate to tell the rich how to protect the poor. All they will be able to do, and all they should do, is let them be free to do so.

It is the duty of the next Conservative government to free the working man, and craft a civil society where individuals, not the State, protect the vulnerable. That should be our ambition.


At 5:36 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The rich of then were the landed gentry who worked their way up from nothing??? Just like the Beckfords, the subject of a wonderful recent documentary who made their fortune on the back of sharp practices and sugar plantations in the West Indies (ie the Slave Trade), then spent it all constructing Fonthill Abbey which promptly fell down.

At 5:54 pm, Blogger Mark O'Brien said...

I was not referring to the gentry as the ones who made their way up the ladder. I said that the rich were the gentry and the self-made men (just as the rich today are the footballers and the pop stars - different groups, but both can be rich!). Just a minor point I wanted clear up.

As far as the Beckfords are concerned, forgive my ignorance but I hadn't heard of the family or of Fonthill Abbey. But what I have heard of are these people: Thomas Armitage and Dr Barnardo as I mentioned in the article; Benjamin Waugh, who created the NSPCC; Octavia Hill, Sir Robert Hunter and Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley, who founded the National Trust; William Booth, who worked to help prostitutes and drunks find a better life. Every rich man in Victorian Britain was expected by his society to help the poor. That is why the two men who visited Ebenezer Scrooge in Dickens asking for money were so gobsmacked by his refusal: the rich just didn't talk like he did in his day.

To pick up on one family which has hardly had a lasting impact on society is an awful disrespect to the thousands of great families and individuals in Victorian Britain who didn't expect the government to pay the way of the poor, but who actually got on with the job of helping the needy - not expecting others to do it; not talking about doing it; just DOING IT!


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