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Book Review: Reinventing Civil Society

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Reinventing Civil Society: The Rediscovery of Welfare Without Politics
by David G. Green (London: Institute for Economic Affairs, 1993); 166 pages; £7.95.

When President Clinton delivered his address to a joint session of Congress to outline his proposal for national health insurance, he compared his health plan with Franklin Roosevelt’s introduction of Social Security in 1935. National health insurance, the president said, would provide medical protection for everyone the way Social Security ended the practice of old people dying in the streets.

Cities have always been plagued by the presence of a certain number of indigents. And early in this century, urban life and living conditions for the poor and the newest wave of immigrants were often primitive and spartan. But the president’s imaginary of a multitude of old people breathing their last while lying on the sidewalks of America’s cities transcends even the loosest commitment to the truth.

In fact, before the arrival of the modern welfare state, voluntary, private-sector institutions had evolved to serve as the market providers for many of those “social services” now viewed as the near-exclusive prerogative of the government. Unfortunately, after nearly a century of increasing political and cultural collectivism, the historical memory of the pre-welfare state era has all but been lost.

This is what makes David G. Green’s book, Reinventing Civil Society: The Rediscovery of Welfare Without Politics , an extremely valuable contribution. Mr. Green is the director of the health and welfare series for the Institute of Economic Affairs in London. And in this latest contribution to the series’ collection of monographs, Mr. Green presents the history of what came to be known as the “friendly societies” that provided mutual aid and assistance in England during the 19th and early 20th century.

When they first arose in the late 18th and early 19th century, Mr. Green explains, the friendly societies were mutual-aid associations for insurance for the cost of funerals of workers or their family members. But as the 19th century progressed, the friendly societies expanded their activities to encompass four primary services: 1) accident insurance that provided weekly allowances for the families of workers who were injured in their places of employment; 2) medical insurance that covered the cost of medical care and prescribed medicines for workers and their families; 3) life insurance and assistance to maintain family members in case of the death of the primary breadwinner or his spouse; and 4) funeral insurance to cover burial costs for the worker or members of his family. Later on, many of the societies also developed savings and lending facilities for members, fire insurance and loans for home purchases.

By 1910, the year before Britain’s first National Insurance Act was brought into law, approximately three-quarters of the work force of the British economy was covered by the private, voluntary insurance associations of the friendly societies. The memberships in their associations covered the entire income spectrum, from the middle- and higher-income skilled worker to the low-wage, unskilled members of the work force.

Besides these economic functions, the friendly societies also served other societal functions, as well, Mr. Green tells us. For instance, they organized social activities for members, such as outings and public lectures; fostered self-responsibility and self-help; taught leadership qualities through rotating executive positions from among the general membership; and emphasized the superiority and success of voluntarism instead of state intervention.

In the years before the First World War, the free society had developed and was extending the very social institutions needed to handle all those concerns that in our own time are considered the responsibility of the state. What the modern welfare state did was to preempt and undermine the free market’s solutions to many of what we call today “social services.”

State regulation of the friendly societies, subsidized “free” medical and insurance services, and new taxes to cover the government’s cost for providing these national insurance schemes all resulted in a crowding-out of the voluntary alternatives of the private sector.

The deeper problem, Mr. Green suggests, is caused not by the economic and cultural collectivists, who have always tended to confuse the “political” with the “social” and, therefore, assumed that government action was as moral and just as voluntary action, but by the friends of liberty who have failed to appreciate that the free society requires more than the freedom of the marketplace. The free society relies upon a moral foundation of community and voluntary mutual support. Or as he expresses it, “[T]he good society requires more than [market] coordination. Liberty rests on personal responsibility for the maintenance of the institutions, morals and habits fundamental to freedom.” The free society, in his view, requires and can only be sustained when there is a “realm of ‘activity in common,’ which is at once voluntary and guided by a sense of duty to other people and to the social system on which liberty rests.” It is what makes a civil society.

The friends of liberty, as a result, must operate on two fronts simultaneously. They must oppose the continuing encroachments of the state upon what remains of the associations and relationships among free men. And, at the same time, a concerted effort must be made to reawaken and reestablish those community and mutual endeavors of voluntary action that must fill that moral, cultural and economic vacuum that state interference produces in the social order. Without a victory on both fronts, a triumph for liberty will be unsustainable in the long-run.

For these simultaneous victories, men must be reminded that there was a time when they could solve their personal and community problems without the state. Mr. Green provides an invaluable history of how men in England did so in the past.

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    Richard M. Ebeling is a professor of economics at Northwood University. He was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).