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Of Friendly Societies

Another branch of insurance is by contribution, or (to borrow the term from that before mentioned) friendly societies; which is, in short, a number of people entering into a mutual compact to help one another in case any disaster or distress fall upon them.

If mankind could agree, as these might be regulated, all things which have casualty in them might be secured. But one thing is particularly required in this way of assurances: none can be admitted but such whose circumstances are (at least, in some degree) alike, and so mankind must be sorted into classes; and as their contingencies differ, every different sort may be a society upon even terms; for the circumstances of people, as to life, differ extremely by the age and constitution of their bodies and difference of employment--as he that lives on shore against him that goes to sea, or a young man against an old man, or a shopkeeper against a soldier, are unequal. I do not pretend to determine the controverted point of predestination, the foreknowledge and decrees of Providence. Perhaps, if a man be decreed to be killed in the trenches, the same foreknowledge ordered him to list himself a soldier, that it might come to pass, and the like of a seaman. But this I am sure, speaking of second causes, a seaman or a soldier are subject to more contingent hazards than other men, and therefore are not upon equal terms to form such a society; nor is an annuity on the life of such a man worth so much as it is upon other men: therefore if a society should agree together to pay the executor of every member so much after the decease of the said member, the seamen's executors would most certainly have an advantage, and receive more than they pay. So that it is necessary to sort the world into parcels--seamen with seamen, soldiers with soldiers, and the like.

Nor is this a new thing; the friendly society must not pretend to assume to themselves the contrivance of the method, or think us guilty of borrowing from them, when we draw this into other branches; for I know nothing is taken from them but the bare words, "friendly society," which they cannot pretend to be any considerable piece of invention either.

I can refer them to the very individual practice in other things, which claims prescription beyond the beginning of the last age, and that is in our marshes and fens in Essex, Kent, and the Isle of Ely; where great quantities of land being with much pains and a vast charge recovered out of the seas and rivers, and maintained with banks (which they call walls), the owners of those lands agree to contribute to the keeping up those walls and keeping out the sea, which is all one with a friendly society; and if I have a piece of land in any level or marsh, though it bounds nowhere on the sea or river, yet I pay my proportion to the maintenance of the said wall or bank; and if at any time the sea breaks in, the damage is not laid upon the man in whose land the breach happened, unless it was by his neglect, but it lies on the whole land, and is called a "level lot."

Again, I have known it practised in troops of horse, especially when it was so ordered that the troopers mounted themselves; where every private trooper has agreed to pay, perhaps, 2d. per diem out of his pay into a public stock, which stock was employed to remount any of the troop who by accident should lose his horse.

Again, the sailors' contribution to the Chest at Chatham is another friendly society, and more might be named.

To argue against the lawfulness of this would be to cry down common equity as well as charity: for as it is kind that my neighbour should relieve me if I fall into distress or decay, so it is but equal he should do so if I agreed to have done the same for him; and if God Almighty has commanded us to relieve and help one another in distress, surely it must be commendable to bind ourselves by agreement to obey that command; nay, it seems to be a project that we are led to by the divine rule, and has such a latitude in it that for aught I know, as I said, all the disasters in the world might be prevented by it, and mankind be secured from all the miseries, indigences, and distresses that happen in the world. In which I crave leave to be a little particular.

First general peace might be secured all over the world by it, if all the powers agreed to suppress him that usurped or encroached upon his neighbour. All the contingencies of life might be fenced against by this method (as fire is already), as thieves, floods by land, storms by sea, losses of all sorts, and death itself, in a manner, by making it up to the survivor.

I shall begin with the seamen; for as their lives are subject to more hazards than others, they seem to come first in view.

Daniel Defoe

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