Mutual Aid Societies

Mutual Aid Society

In a landmark 2000 study, historian David Beito carefully documented ways that the welfare state ate like a cancer at – and, hence destroyed many – private civil-society institutions of mutual aid. But some such institutions still exist. Civil society, fortunately, is robust – although not inextinguishable.

Destroying Civil Society

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Many people think life without the welfare state would be chaos. In their minds, nobody would help support the less fortunate, and there would be riots in the streets. Little do they know that people found innovative ways of supporting each other before the welfare state existed. One of the most important of these ways was the mutual-aid society.

Mutual aid, also known as fraternalism, refers to social organizations that gathered dues and paid benefits to members facing hardship. According to David Beito in From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State, there was a “great stigma” attached to accepting government aid or private charity during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Mutual aid, on the other hand, did not carry the same stigma. It was based on reciprocity: today’s mutual-aid recipient could be tomorrow’s donor, and vice versa.

Welfare before the Welfare State

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