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Samuel Smiles on how an idle, thriftless, or drunken man can, and should, improve himself through self-help and not by means of the state (1859).

The Scot, Samuel Smiles (1812-1904), argued that individuals could and should improve themselves through hard work, thrift, self-discipline, education, and moral improvement and not seek the help of government:

[T]here is no power of law that can make the idle man industrious, the thriftless provident, or the drunken sober; though every individual can be each and all of these if he will, by the exercise of his own free powers of action and self-denial. Indeed, all experience serves to prove that the worth and strength of a state depend far less upon the form of its institutions than upon the character of its men. For the nation is only the aggregate of individual conditions, and civilization itself is but a question of personal improvement.

Even the best institutions can give a man no active aid. Perhaps the utmost they can do is, to leave him free to develop himself and improve his individual condition. But in all times men have been prone to believe that their happiness and well-being were to be secured by means of institutions rather than by their own conduct. Hence the value of legislation as an agent in human advancement has always been greatly over-estimated. To constitute the millionth part of a legislature, by voting for one or two men once in three or five years, however conscientiously this duty may be performed, can exercise but little active influence upon any man’s life and character. Moreover, it is every day becoming more clearly understood, that the function of government is negative and restrictive, rather than positive and active; being resolvable principally into protection,—protection of life, liberty, and property. Hence the chief “reforms” of the last fifty years have consisted mainly in abolitions and disenactments. But there is no power of law that can make the idle man industrious, the thriftless provident, or the drunken sober; though every individual can be each and all of these if he will, by the exercise of his own free powers of action and self-denial. Indeed, all experience serves to prove that the worth and strength of a state depend far less upon the form of its institutions than upon the character of its men. For the nation is only the aggregate of individual conditions, and civilization itself is but a question of personal improvement.

About this Quotation:

Samuel Smiles is one of several writers of the Victorian period who advocated what are now called “Victorian values”, i.e. the value of hard work, thrift, self-discipline, education, and moral improvement. He used a number of historical examples of successful and self-made men, such as Josiah Wedgwood, to urge ordinary working men and women to follow these examples. In a passage just before the quote shown above, Smiles makes the following point which shows his radical liberal perspective: “it is every day becoming more clearly understood, that the function of government is negative and restrictive, rather than positive and active; being resolvable principally into protection,—protection of life, liberty, and property. Hence the chief “reforms” of the last fifty years have consisted mainly in abolitions and disenactments.”

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