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Living Under Law Liberals Just Don't Get It

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The Way of Mutual Aid

by Christopher Chantrill
January 01, 2005 at 12:18 pm

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ACCORDING to the myth of the modern welfare state, the nineteenth century was a lethal battleground in which the poor and the unskilled wandered unprotected and forlorn against the power of employers and landlords. It was an age of take the meager wages or starve; pay the exorbitant rents or sleep out in the streets. There was no social safety net, no compassion, no recourse. The common people were naked before their oppressors.

There is a germ of truth in this. When immigrants to the industrial city arrived, either as peasants direct from rural idiocy, or as emigrants from a far away land, they lacked, initially, the social support system enjoyed by those who are born to the city or who have already struggled their way up from indigence.

But the immigrants were not helpless. They did not risk their lives in a hazardous ocean crossing or abandon their scanty livelihood on the farm to moulder in the city in helpless victimhood. They were determined to thrive, and thrive is what most of them did. In every city throughout the nineteenth century they planted and tended a dense underbrush of social institutions of all kinds, from local government, churches, mutual-aid societies, ethnic associations, labor unions, and service organizations. There was a safety net; it developed spontaneously, powered by the actions of millions of people. It just wasn’t the system of the modern welfare state, a safety net consciously spun and woven by a national political elite and maintained by a national government’s laws and functionaries.

At the center of this social safety net, in the United States and the United Kingdom at least, was a system of fraternal organizations, descended indirectly from medieval guilds, that brought ordinary people together on the basis of some affinity, real or imagined, in which they could organize and deliver mutual-aid and social benefits to each other in a social framework of brotherhood and reciprocity. Because they were not trying to impress anyone, they could indulge themselves with fanciful names and titles: Irishmen could come together in the Ancient Order of Hibernians; blacks in the Grand United Order of Galilean Fishermen; Jews in B’nai B’rith. The British working classes came together in friendly societies, most prominently in the Manchester Unity of Oddfellows and the Ancient Order of Foresters. Americans joined Moose, Elks, Masons, and the transplanted Oddfellows.

At the turn of the twenty-first century in the United States, most people have forgotten the colorful Moose, Elks, and Masons; they drive past their moldering lodges in incomprehension. And yet, at the turn of the twentieth century “everybody” in the city belonged to a fraternal organization. No political philosopher called them out of the ether; no political activist demanded a comprehensive and mandatory subsidy for fraternity. They did not blaze across the nation like itinerant preachers. And yet they grew from nothing in the sixteenth century to ubiquity in the early twentieth century. In the United Kingdom, in 1910, it was estimated that 9 million of the 12 million adult males belonged to a friendly society (Green 1993). In the United States in 1924 it was estimated that 48 percent of working class men in the United States belonged to a fraternal organization. (Beito 2000 p.222) And then they were chopped off at the knees, and replaced by the government welfare state.

Today, the friendly society has dropped off the radar of British society, except for an occasional reference in some Labour politician’s speech praising the contribution of “friendly societies and trades unions” to the socialist movement. In the United States, the great ugly buildings of the fraternal organizations echo with the activities of sub-tenants, the old meeting rooms converted for dance classes. The Oddfellows and Foresters in England, the Elks, the Masons, the Eagles, and the Moose in the United States: what was the point of them? Fifty years to one hundred years ago, such a question would have been unnecessary. Everyone belonged, and everyone understood.

Christopher Chantrill blogs at www.roadtothemiddleclass.com.

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Action

The incentive that impels a man to act is always some uneasiness... But to make a man act [he must have] the expectation that purposeful behavior has the power to remove or at least to alleviate the felt uneasiness.
Ludwig von Mises, Human Action


Chappies

“But I saw a man yesterday who knows a fellow who had it from a chappie that said that Urquhart had been dipping himself a bit recklessly off the deep end.”  —Freddy Arbuthnot
Dorothy L. Sayers, Strong Poison


China and Christianity

At first, we thought [the power of the West] was because you had more powerful guns than we had. Then we thought it was because you had the best political system. Next we focused on your economic system. But in the past twenty years, we have realized that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity.
David Aikman, Jesus in Beijing


Churches

[In the] higher Christian churches... they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a string of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect it every minute.
Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm


Civil Society

“Civil Society”—a complex welter of intermediate institutions, including businesses, voluntary associations, educational institutions, clubs, unions, media, charities, and churches—builds, in turn, on the family, the primary instrument by which people are socialized into their culture and given the skills that allow them to live in broader society and through which the values and knowledge of that society are transmitted across the generations.
Francis Fukuyama, Trust


Class War

In England there were always two sharply opposed middle classes, the academic middle class and the commercial middle class. In the nineteenth century, the academic middle class won the battle for power and status... Then came the triumph of Margaret Thatcher... The academics lost their power and prestige and... have been gloomy ever since.
Freeman Dyson, “The Scientist as Rebel”


Conservatism

Conservatism is the philosophy of society. Its ethic is fraternity and its characteristic is authority — the non-coercive social persuasion which operates in a family or a community. It says ‘we should...’.
Danny Kruger, On Fraternity


Conservatism's Holy Grail

What distinguishes true Conservatism from the rest, and from the Blair project, is the belief in more personal freedom and more market freedom, along with less state intervention... The true Third Way is the Holy Grail of Tory politics today - compassion and community without compulsion.
Minette Marrin, The Daily Telegraph


Conversion

“When we received Christ,” Phil added, “all of a sudden we now had a rule book to go by, and when we had problems the preacher was right there to give us the answers.”
James M. Ault, Jr., Spirit and Flesh


Democratic Capitalism

I mean three systems in one: a predominantly market economy; a polity respectful of the rights of the individual to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and a system of cultural institutions moved by ideals of liberty and justice for all. In short, three dynamic and converging systems functioning as one: a democratic polity, an economy based on markets and incentives, and a moral-cultural system which is plural and, in the largest sense, liberal.
Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism


Drang nach Osten

There was nothing new about the Frankish drive to the east... [let] us recall that the continuance of their rule depended upon regular, successful, predatory warfare.
Richard Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion


Education

“We have met with families in which for weeks together, not an article of sustenance but potatoes had been used; yet for every child the hard-earned sum was provided to send them to school.”
E. G. West, Education and the State


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