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Joan King: How we insure each other against risk in an orderly society
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Every culture faces risk, and every culture has some form of insurance to cover that risk.

Originally it was the family. Parents sacrificed for their children, and as they grew the children took care of their younger siblings and finally their aging parents. Families grouped together in tribes, and tribes were obligated to help one another.

The earliest example of insurance may well be the Code of Hammurabi. The code is literally carved in stone and can be seen today in the Louvre. It is a contract between the ruler and his people and describes the government’s obligation to individuals who suffer personal loss through no fault of their own.

Feudalism was a form of insurance. The lord of the manor was responsible for the welfare of those who worked his lands. It was his job to know his people and offer a degree of protection against the vicissitudes of fate.

The guild system offered insurance to craftsmen during the dark ages. The guilds collected funds from members and covered losses due to fire or robbery. This was probably the earliest form of group coverage. Individuals sacrificed a portion of their wealth to protect the greater whole. The guild system prospered and contributed to the growth of Europe.

Mankind’s ability to cooperate with one another sets us above other animals and is largely responsible for our species’ dominant position in the world today. We understand this instinctively. Alone we were vulnerable. Together we are stronger and we prosper.

But what has happened to us now? Do we no longer recognize the symbolism of the Fasces, the bound bundle of sticks pictured on the old U.S. dime? It’s also found behind the podium in the U.S. House of Representative?

A good friend of mine was complaining about her insurance. She said she’d had it for years and the money had been wasted because she’d never gotten sick. I disagreed. This was an intelligent woman with a big heart, but she couldn’t see that the money she’d spent on her policy contributed to the strength of society in which she lived.

She had been lucky. She didn’t have an accident. She didn’t have a serious illness. But those who did were better off because of her “sacrifice,” if you want to call it that. I call it common sense.

Mutual risk is just part of human vulnerability. The other half is the need for trust. We’re all vulnerable. We can help one another, but will we? No one in any culture wants to sacrifice for a deadbeat, for someone who doesn’t hold up his end of the bargain.

A family knows its own. A weak member may be tolerated, but only to a certain extent. Tribes and communities are close-knit enough to monitor their members. Eventually, the individual who imposes on others will be found out.

Today, the freeloaders are more likely to be hidden among the masses. We know — or maybe we just fear — that they’re out there, and it destroys our trust in the system.

When the average American lacks trust in his government, we are all weakened. A nation with a population of well over 300 million individuals needs a strong government. Its people need a reliable form of social insurance. Looking back through history, one factor remains constant. The individual has always had to sacrifice a certain amount of autonomy for the good of the whole.

Today health care is at the top of the list when it comes to social insurance. American health care, when you can get it, is better than ever, but access is difficult. The Affordable Care Act is a mess, but it needs to be fixed, not junked.

Health care starts at birth, and that’s when national health insurance should begin. Like Social Security, everybody contributes into one system, and that system by default, has to be the government.

Joan King is a resident of Sautee. 

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