The Prevention of Destitution

March 26, 2010

A wonderful resource, the Scout Report, led me to the Fabian Society Online Archive, which led me to this: a pamphlet written in 1912 in England. It comes from the National Committee for the Prevention of Destitution—have you ever heard of anything that sounded nobler than that?—and it’s title is “Complete National Provision for Sickness: How to Amend the Insurance Act.”

The author, Mrs. Sidney Webb—yes, she actually calls herself ays “Mrs.”—begins her argument with this sentence:

How thin is the thread on which your whole happiness hangs!

That’s just what I’ve been saying to everybody about health care for the past year. “There but for fortune . . .” It happened to my father. He went from skilled machinist  to an unemployable, chronically disabled man in the space of a year, thanks to Parkinson’s Disease. He was 46 years old. A thin thread, indeed.

Mrs. Webb believes that, to ensure the good health of all, it is necessary to “get rid of the great financial octopus”—the insurance companies. She believes that the poor should be exempt from contributing to the cost of health care. She believes that the money spent to create health care for all will be less in the end than the money required to pay for “the sickness that we now neglect to prevent.”

Beatrice Potter Webb (1858-1943) was an English social economist With her husband Sidney, she wrote The History of Trade Unionism (1894; rev. ed. 1920), Industrial Democracy (1897), English Local Government (9 vol., 1906–29), Consumers’ Cooperative Movement (1921), and Soviet Communism: A New Civilization? (2 vol., 1935). Not a bad resume for a woman living in a time and place we often associate with drawing rooms and fancy teas.

Perhaps my favorite of all her comments in “Complete National Provision for Sickness” is this one:

What has been done . . . for the rich, can now be done for the poor . . . if only the Government chooses to take the necessary action. It is for the working men and women to insist that Government shall do this.

Whether you think what Mrs. Webb is talking about has just begun to happen, or whether you think it still needs to happen, reading her pamphlet will make you feel good. While some among us are throwing bricks, it’s a way of pinching yourself—of remembering that progressive ideas have a long history, and that they make sense.

We may still be just a thin thread away from ruin, but I think we’re a little better off than we were last week. And, while we’re on the subject of good women, Happy Birthday, Speaker Pelosi.


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