Frank Wilson

is a retired Inquirer book editor

Albert Jay Nock, a canny and droll observer of American folkways, points out in one of his essays that the antithesis of the word radical is not conservative, but superficial. Radical derives from the Latin radix, meaning "root." To think radically means to get at the root of the thing you are thinking about.

A good example of discourse confining itself to the topsoil of mentation would be the recent national gossip regarding health care. I call it gossip because it is hard to call something a debate when the subject of the debate - the proposed legislation - is unavailable for examination. As for superficiality, it would be hard to think of anything more superficial than legislators' voting to enact a law without actually knowing exactly what that law stipulates. Why, soon we may be able to vote for candidates whose identity will be revealed only after the election.

The funny thing about thinking radically is that it can be done without having to use big words or complicated reasoning. Those of us who were taught how to diagram sentences were introduced to it immediately: "What or whom am I talking about?" There's a perfectly radical inquiry. It gets right down to the root of the matter.

Ask it of what is being called "heath care" and you may find yourself quickly realizing that there must be some mistake. Health is a state of being in corpore sano, "sound in body," not sick. Those aren't healthy people you see lying in hospital beds.

So what we are really talking about is care of the sick or injured - medical care. Once this initial confusion is cleared up, another fundamental question immediately presents itself: Why would the state be the first place to turn to in order to deal with this problem? There may be many sound reasons this should be so. I just cannot think of any - which may merely reflect my lack of imagination. But I do know that it wasn't always so, at least not in the United States.

In Democracy in America, Alexis de Toqueville has this to say on the subject:

"Americans of all ages, all conditions and all dispositions, constantly form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which all take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds - religious, moral, serious, futile, extensive, or restricted, enormous or diminutive. The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found establishments for education, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; and in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools. . . . Wherever, at the head of some new undertaking, you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association."

In From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State: Fraternal Societies and Social Services, 1890 to 1967, David Beito serves up some interesting details as to how this had worked out by the beginning of the last century:

"The provision of insurance was the most visible manifestation of fraternal mutual aid. By 1920 members of societies carried over $9 billion worth of life insurance. During the same period lodges dominated the field of health insurance. They offered two basic varieties of protection: cash payments to compensate for income from working days lost and care of a doctor. Some societies . . . founded tuberculosis sanitariums, specialist clinics, and hospitals. Many others established orphanages and homes for the elderly."

It is surely worth remarking that the $9 billion worth of life insurance held at the time by benevolent societies was $1.2 billion more than the federal government spent that year. Imagine what that $9 billion would have grown into had circumstances proved more favorable. For, as Beito notes, such benevolent societies "have declined in influence since the depression, especially as providers of mutual aid and philanthropy." It's one of those unfortunate consequences that are usually said to be unintended.

But they were not unforeseen. Prince Peter Kropotkin, the Russian anarchist, in his 1902 book, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, had observed how much the same thing had taken place centuries before when the power of the medieval city was eclipsed by the developing nation-state: "In proportion as the obligations toward the State grew in numbers the citizens were evidently relieved from their obligations toward each other. In the guild . . . two 'brothers' were bound to watch in turns a brother who had fallen ill; it would be sufficient now to give one's neighbor the address of the next paupers' hospital."

Certainly, Toqueville wouldn't have been surprised:

". . . the governing power will therefore perpetually increase, and its very efforts will extend it every day. The more it stands in the place of associations, the more will individuals, losing the notion of combining together, require its assistance. . . . The morals and the intelligence of a democratic people would be as much endangered as its business and manufactures, if the government ever wholly usurped the place of private companies."

Nevertheless, Beito may well be onto something when he says that "an examination of the past fraternal record has much to offer modern Americans. Societies accomplished important goals that still elude politicians, specialists in public policy, social reformers, and philanthropists."

E-mail Frank Wilson

at presterfrank@gmail.com.