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Fraternal Societies and Social Concern

The first Christmas after my wife and I were married, we received an interesting gift from her grandparents - a year's worth of dues for membership at their Moose lodge. We had visited the lodge with them and other family members, using the expansive dance floor in a conservative setting to two-step our way to an enjoyable evening, but we had never seriously considered becoming members. Exercising the gift meant joining the lodge and going through its applications and initiation rites. The paperwork was modest, but the initiation ceremony was more painful mostly long-winded and intensely boring but also occasionally interesting and quite memorable. The devotion to the causes they supported was admirable; the extent to which moderately educated folks had gone to memorize relatively lengthy parts of the ceremony was impressive; and the rituals within the ceremony were odd and even a bit disconcerting. Unfortunately, the men and women were seated separately, so my wife and I didn't even have the pleasure of exchanging notes, whispers, and smiles. Over the next year, we still went to the lodge only with family and then did not renew our membership. For better or worse, my days as a loyal Moose had ended.

David Beito's book, From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State: Fraternal Societies and Social Services, 1890­1967, provided much-needed context to my short encounter with the Moose. The text is well written and scrupulously documented, including surveys and empirical studies of organizational performance. Beito provides both a useful overview and tremendous detail about the various historical contexts in which fraternal societies operated and the variety of functions they tried to serve. (The details can be skimmed or absorbed, depending on one's level of interest.)

Beito notes that fraternals were especially prominent in the United States during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, developing as disposable income, immigration, and domestic migration to cities all increased. They were larger than any other voluntary association (possibly excepting churches), having one-third of all males as members in 1920. Groups such as Masons, Moose, and Odd Fellows were, in essence, middle-class versions of Edmund Burke's “little platoons,” formed on the basis of common social traits (class and ethnicity), common moral values (patriotism and thrift), and economic needs (insurance and safety-net assistance). Fraternals acted as a forum for entertainment and promoted social cohesion, but perhaps most importantly, they provided mutual aid to members in distress and formed cooperatives that efficiently took care of health care, life insurance (even dominating the field for a time), and funeral benefits (“to avoid a pauper's grave”). Beito also devotes a number of chapters to the special projects of fraternals - namely, orphanages and hospitals. Fraternals declined precipitously in the 1930s, as their usefulness diminished in the face of social, economic, and political competition, especially from the government's leaps into realms originally covered by fraternals (such as Social Security and welfare).

A Third Category of Assistance

Beito adds much to both the history and the contemporary debate over public welfare and private charity. That said, fraternal efforts to render assistance belong in a third category. Although assistance rendered to needy fraternal members was privately provided, it was not considered charity. Within fraternals, there was the probability of “direct reciprocity,” meaning that the recipient today could become the donor tomorrow. The assistance - because it was between members - was viewed very differently from charity. In Beito's example, the Odd Fellows used the terms benefit and right instead of charity and relief to denote this difference.

Beito's approach is from a different angle than Marvin Olasky's in his seminal work, The Tragedy of American Compassion. Whereas Olasky emphasizes the perspective of the aid-givers within charity and welfare, Beito focuses on the prospective recipients. Olasky's “supply-side” approach analyzes the debate within the aid-giving community: how and to whom to render assistance. By contrast, Beito's “demand-side” analysis discusses how the needy passionately wanted to avoid the stigma of accepting welfare or charity (again, defined as assistance without direct reciprocity). Fraternals provided a popular way to avoid this stigma, ensuring one against life's trials without having to accept “hierarchical” relief from relatively wealthy outsiders in a manner that was often adversarial, patronizing, and degrading.

Interestingly, fraternals elicited a combination of social cooperation and individualism - a willingness to help but a pride in self-reliance. Further, fraternals did police their own. The rituals for which fraternals are perhaps most famous were initially embraced to foil attempts to obtain assistance fraudulently. Moreover, the rituals were constructed in a way that taught moral and practical lessons. Benets were usually conditional on appropriate conduct and membership in good standing. Such behavioral regulations derived from a desire not only to enforce conformity to social and cultural norms but also to protect the fraternal's investments, especially in life insurance. Beito notes that they were practicing “actuarial science in an embryonic stage.”

Quaint Curiosities of a Bygone Age?

Not only is Beito's study historically interesting, but it is also relevant today. First, the book is replete with examples of the use of government by interest groups to restrict the “economic activity” of fraternals (chiefly in health care and life insurance)a very common practice today. For example, Beito devotes a chapter to “the evil of the lodge practice,” where doctors contracted with lodges to provide general medical care for a fixed fee. (This was a natural way for some doctors to get started in the profession, giving them an established base and the ability to easily develop community contacts.) These service providers were slandered and even blackballed by the American Medical Association, since they undercut wages. Although lodge doctors may have, on average, provided lower-quality care, they did provide lower-cost service to those who could not afford higher prices. This practice was eventually eliminated through persecution by the AMA and through the increasing effectiveness of its cartel, which restricted the overall number of licensed doctors. Second, fraternals were largely successful in areas where private charity and government remain largely unsuccessful today, especially working in cities, dealing with the needy, and providing competent, low-cost health careers - as where fraternals were most active. With respect to fraternal social welfare models, Beito argues that it would be foolish either to recreate them or to dismiss them as “the quaint curiosities of a bygone era.” That said, fraternals clearly have lessons to teach us about the importance of subsidiarity and the “little platoons” throughout society that pragmatically address social concerns.

In his Encyclical Letter Quadragesimo Anno (no. 78), Pius XI noted - even in 1931 - that

when we speak of the reform of institutions, the State comes chiefly to mind [because of the] near extinction of that rich social life which was once highly developed through associations of various kinds. This is to the great harm of the State itself, for with a structure of social governance lost, and with the taking over of all the burdens which the wrecked associations once bore, the State has been overwhelmed and crushed by almost infinite tasks and duties.

Surely, this is more true today. With the continued growth of government and the subsequent atrophy of the little platoons, society finds itself relying on the state, which cannot solve these problems adequately, if at all. Therefore, the hope is that non-governmental entities - most notably the church, but also private health care insurance co-ops, modestly resurgent fraternal societies, and other groups - will emerge in the coming years.