Letter: Samuel Smiles is innocent

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The Independent Online
YOU CLAIM in your editorial ('The high cost of low taxes', 2 January) that the Government's aim of low middle-class taxation follows the views of Samuel Smiles.

This is a fallacy that has grown out of Smiles's well- known insistence that self-help was the solution to most people's problems and has led to his being pilloried as an arch advocate of laissez-faire. But in 1849, for example, he told a parliamentary select committee that public libraries should not only be numerous and free but also that they were useless unless they were open when working people could use them.

In all Smiles's large output, the expression 'laissez-faire' occurs just once (Thrift, p377), where it is denounced as a 'dreadful theory' used to excuse the failure to eradicate commercial chicanery, sub- standard housing and squalor:

'To remove . . . disease requires industry, constant attention, and - what is far more serious - increased rates. The foul interests hold their ground and bid defiance to the attacks made upon them. Things did very well, they say, in 'good old times' - why should they not do so now?' (Thrift, p376).

That is not an endorsement of 'back to basics'. You flatter contemporary 'foul interests' by implying that anyone as liberal and fair-minded as Smiles might approve such policies.

Adrian Jarvis