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Reviewed by:
  • Regulated Lives: Life Insurance and British Society, 1800–1914
  • Theodore M. Porter
Regulated Lives: Life Insurance and British Society, 1800–1914. By Timothy Alborn (Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2009), 440 pp. $80.00

Institutions of life insurance gave new meanings to death, which no longer called for humility before God. The responsible father was duty-bound to plan for a future on earth that he, by definition, would not live to see. That duty was typically enacted by life-insurance agents, who were emerging in the nineteenth century as the very model of highpressure salesmen. Among their tricks was to call up what Alborn likens to the Ghost of Christmas Future, revealing to a man the impending misery and despondency of his family should he die uninsured. The danger—which Alborn recapitulates from the description of an 1857 writer—included sons reduced to thievery then jail, and young daughters to a much worse condition, the very thought of which makes a father’s blood run cold. Life insurance offered protection against these horrors. In practice, the insurance customer’s preparations for death depended primarily on a different kind of seer, not literary ghosts but mathematical actuaries, whose tireless work of data collection and calculation yielded the life table, a schedule of death rates and life expectancies by age. Life insurance thus reduced that greatest of unknowns, human mortality, to a system of averages, leaving, at the collective level, very little uncertainty.

It is difficult to understand why historians have given such scant attention to institutions of insurance, the rise and transfiguration of which have reshaped our lives as well as our deaths. In the twentieth century, medical and retirement insurance have come to be seen as essential and are supplied, in varying manners and degrees, by every self-respecting modern state. Yet the tools for mastering risk were pioneered by private companies supplying life insurance. Such technologies, to be sure, have not always succeeded, and their failings are even more fascinating than their successes. The most basic difficulty goes under the name of adverse selection, referring to the tendency for people to purchase insurance when they think they are most likely to be in need. In some cases, the pressure of adverse selection can be strong enough to drive out ever-expanding circles of the younger and healthier, to the point that the collectivization of risk becomes impossible. In a sense, state provision of insurance provides an escape from the downward spiral of selection, but the political problem of compelling the healthy and prosperous to subsidize [End Page 447] insurance for the sick and poor can be, as recent American experience shows, nearly intractable.

Alborn’s superb book, though priced for libraries and a specialist audience, should be of interest to anyone concerned with social or private insurance and the public role of knowledge. The range and depth of his research materials, including a variety of archives and all sorts of specialist and ephemeral publications, inspire awe. Alborn depicts the insurance company as a financial institution balanced between mathematics and marketing, a harbinger and a maker of the data-driven world. Yet insurance inspired the poetic muse as much as the mathematical one, exemplified in detective novels and films as well as the insistent imaginings of insurance agents. Alborn is alert to its quotidian rituals, such as the medical examination, which bequeathed to society the “risk factor” and many technologies of medical prognostication. He demonstrates that life insurance was about inheritance and investment, about securing loans and planning for retirement, as well as about financial security for families. Above all, he has a profound sense of the dynamic that drove the evolution of insurance, the need to regularize and systematize, to normalize diversity, and to guard against perverse incentives.

This book about British insurance is of fundamental importance for British history, social and cultural history, business history, and history of science. It charts the rise of a transformative modern alliance of social administration with mathematical technologies, generating means without precedent of regulation and prognostication.

Theodore M. Porter
University of California, Los Angeles
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Additional Information

ISSN
1530-9169
Print ISSN
0022-1953
Pages
pp. 447-448
Launched on MUSE
2010-12-10
Open Access
No
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