The rise & fall of community welfare societies

This article is a summary of a talk I gave at Consilium (July 2010), which itself was a partial summary of my presentation at the inaugural Festival of Dangerous Ideas (4 October 2009).

In the long and complicated debate about welfare systems, there is one element that I think is of particular interest and yet is under-appreciated and unknown to many people: community welfare societies.

By “community welfare” I do not mean private charity, or help from friends, or even social business. All of those are important and positive elements of civil society, but when talking of “community welfare” I mean the coming together of people into mutual societies where everybody contributes and everybody benefits. In effect, I mean a collection of non-government societies that work very much like a mini welfare state.

The first thing that needs to be remembered is that the government did not invent the welfare system. In the early 20th century it is true that there was no government welfare system. But there was a large and growing community welfare system that was relatively effective and efficient, and offered health care, sickness and disability benefits, an aged pension, a widow’s pension, and other forms of help. The government didn’t invent welfare, they nationalised it.

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