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Mutual Aid Societies: It’s Amazing What People Can Do Together

History shows how local, mutual aid fed hungry children, covered medical emergencies, and empowered working-class men—no formal government necessary.

While most of the current political debate is between the Left, with its emphasis on man as a political animal, and the Right, which focuses on our economic freedom, there is also a third leg of a well-functioning society, as Michael Novak sees it: the moral and cultural aspects. This aspect was essential to Adam Smith’s original concept of capitalism, which must be tempered with rules for fair play and benevolence for others.

The Citizens Council for Health Freedom has just published a paper I wrote about the history and potential future of mutual aid associations, often called “friendly societies” in Great Britain or “fraternal associations” in the United States.

The Founders were also very aware of this third sector, arguing that self-government was appropriate only for a virtuous people. This is underscored by a host of quotes compiled by the Washington, Jefferson, and Madison Institute, including these:

George Washington: ‘Virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government, and ‘Human rights can only be assured among a virtuous people.’

What are these virtues? David Green sums them up:

We only have to look at our own language to discover the rich variety of virtues that make a free society work and which describe the obligations we all owe to one another. Good character, honesty, duty, self-sacrifice, honour, service, self-discipline, toleration, respect, justice, self-improvement, trust, civility, fortitude, courage, integrity, diligence, patriotism, consideration for others, thrift and reverence are just a few.

The emphasis on these virtues allowed Anglo-Saxon cultures to move away from humanity’s default systems of governance—political and economic dictatorship by war lords, kings, or church. The Anglo-Saxon approach to liberty tempered with virtue is a counter-intuitive way to order human affairs. It has existed for only a few centuries of human history, and there is constant pressure to lay it aside and return to the default system. It takes constant nurturing, and especially education in what is virtuous behavior. We cannot assume that such skills are instinctual or inherited.

The Eighteenth Century’s Astonishing Societal Strength

Politics and economics alone cannot fill all of society’s needs. There are spiritual and moral requirements, of course, but there are also more practical issues that may fall between the cracks. The political system may be in gridlock and the economic system may be dysfunctional. During such times families and communities may band together to mutually solve problems.

Politics and economics alone cannot fill all of society’s needs.

This happened in Great Britain and the British colonies in America beginning in the eighteenth century in the form of “friendly societies” or “fraternal organizations.” The paper looks at these movements in depth, drawing largely on Green’s “Reinventing Civil Society: The Rediscovery of Welfare Without Politics” and David Beito’s “From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State.”It is extraordinary how successful these organizations were and how much good they did. They started by offering burial benefits and sickness funds so common workers could avoid a pauper’s funeral and have some income when they were too sick to work. These evolved into life insurance and medical benefits, which covered one-third of all American men (and their families) by 1910. Many of the groups also opened orphanages and schools for the children of deceased members, credit unions, newspapers, and many other forms of commercial activity.

Lots More Than Funny Hats

Importantly, they did not only provide material benefits, but also the kind of moral support currently offered by groups like Alcoholics Anonymous. For example, the Grand United Order of Oddfellows told its new members:

It is desired that you should make the event of your Initiation a time for strict self-examination; and if you should find anything in your past life to amend, I solemnly charge you to set about that duty without delay, — let no immoral practice, idle action, or low and vulgar pursuit, be retained by you.

Lodge members helped each other relocate when they couldn’t find work, disciplined brothers who were neglectful of their families, and visited sick members at home or in the hospital.

These lodges were elaborate, sometimes very large, self-governing organizations. They taught their often poorly educated manual laborer members how to chair meetings, write minutes, conduct fair discussions, balance books, make presentations, and perform all the other tasks required by a parliament or a large organization. These were men who had little power or respect on their jobs, but as lodge members they had the opportunity to be leaders and take responsibility for the welfare of others.

The movement was not confined to working men of English descent. In the United States, women and African-Americans had their own lodges, as did succeeding waves of immigrants: the Irish, Poles, Germans, Italians, Jews, and Latin Americans all had mutual aid societies of their own.

How Elites Eroded Working People’s Control Over Their Lives

With the dawn of the twentieth century, fraternal organizations met with intense push-back from organized medicine, which resented the idea that common working men should be the bosses of “medical gentlemen,” and from the commercial insurance industry that began to see the market possibilities of life insurance.

But the most important opponent of these self-help organizations came from the Progressive movement, which was committed to a society in which a well-educated elite was entrusted to manage the affairs of the populace. Beito writes: “The traditional fraternal worldview was under attack. Age-old virtues such as mutual aid, character building, self-restraint, thrift, and self-help, once taken for granted, came under fire either as outmoded or as drastically in need of modification.”

The most important opponent of these self-help organizations came from the Progressive movement, which was committed to a society in which a well-educated elite was entrusted to manage everyone’s affairs.

It wasn’t just that such values were boring and old-fashioned, but that their existence undermined the necessity of the State as the center of gravity in a modern society. Ideas such as thrift were pernicious to an economy that relied on consumer spending for growth. The more one saved, the less one spent. Similarly with loyalty: loyalty to one’s neighbors and coworkers interfered with loyalty to the State.

With the growth of workers compensation laws, employer-sponsored health benefits, commercially available life insurance, more generous welfare programs, and the move away from orphanages towards foster care throughout the twentieth century, the core activities of fraternal societies became less essential.

They devolved either into social clubs like the Moose, Eagles, and Elks clubs of today, or charitable organizations like the Knights of Columbus and Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, although the former still has $86 billion of life insurance in force, and the latter still has 2.6 million members and was listed as number 284 on Fortune Magazine’s list of the Fortune 500 in 2004.

Some Remnants Left Today

In recent years a new wave has started to emerge, especially in the form of the Christian health care sharing ministries, which are exempt from the requirements of the Affordable Care Act. These are still pretty rudimentary, although Kevin Williamson argues in “The End is Near: And It’s Going to be Awesome,” that when combined with social media they could be a model for a new form of self-help that will become ever more essential as governments around the world come face-to-face with the inability to keep their social welfare promises.

Green wrote in his book that these mutual aid societies are formed in response to the “harsh realities” of failed economic and political systems. We don’t see many college professors, hedge fund managers, or Capitol Hill staffers signing up for them. But if current projections hold, the vast majority of Americans will be facing “harsh realities” indeed. And mutual aid will be all the help they can get.

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