- Mutual Insurance 1550–2015: From Guild Welfare and Friendly Societies to Contemporary Micro-Insurers by Marco H. D. van Leeuwen
By the turn of the twenty-first century, mutual insurance seemed all but forgotten in the Western world. Both the expansion of the welfare [End Page 484] state and the ascent of commercial insurance during the course of the twentieth century had eclipsed mutual insurance as a means to cover the basic risks of life. Yet, now that the welfare state is retreating and commercial insurance is becoming more and more inaccessible, mutual insurance is once again on the rise. The growing popularity of mutual insurance merits a closer look at its history. How and why did it work? Can it still work today? With these "simple questions" in mind (4), Van Leeuwen explores the history of mutual insurance from the mid-sixteenth century to the present.
Van Leeuwen defines mutual insurance as "insurance run by the insured" (5), effectively linking the guilds of the sixteenth century with nineteenth-century friendly societies and modern forms of micro-insurance. The study takes the Dutch experience as a case in point, with brief comparative discussions in each chapter touching upon the situation in Great Britain, the United States, Tanzania, and Ethiopia. Van Leeuwen is aware of the limitations of this choice; he explicitly claims that he does not want to "argue that the Dutch mutual experience can be taken to represent the global experience" (11).
The study is organized chronologically, from the era of the guilds (1550–1800) through the age of friendly societies (1800–1900) and the rise and decline of modern trade union insurance (1900–1965) to the new initiatives (1965–2015). The first three chapters are strong examples of Van Leeuwen's trademark approach—combining quantitative data about funds, their longevity, membership, benefits, and conditions with illustrative examples about their internal organization. All of this exposition is firmly rooted in a broad knowledge of welfare economics and welfare history. The fact that the first three chapters are updated and reworked versions of previously published papers has its drawbacks. One of them is that Van Leeuwen does not always seem to have been aware of recent publications while reworking them. Granted, keeping up with the seemingly unending stream of new publications can be difficult, but much more was published after 2012 than the included list of references seems to suggest, especially about the role of mutual insurers in health care.
These are, however, minor annoyances that only a specialist would notice. The real letdown of this study is Chapter 5, which feels like a rush job. Pretending to discuss the period from 1965 to 2015, the chapter actually deals only with the period after 2005, highlighting the laudable but extremely marginal phenomenon of "bread funds" (broodfondsen) and the "exportation" of mutual health insurance to Tanzania and Ethiopia by a Dutch nongovernmental organization (NGO). Furthermore, Van Leeuwen makes some bold (and popular) but untenable claims—for example, that health care is now being dominated by commercial insurers who are able to block people from going to a physician or hospital (235–236). Both claims are verifiably untrue. Oddly enough, enterprises such as UberPop and AirBnB receive praise (242), but Van Leeuwen does not make clear what they actually have to do with mutual insurance in the first place. [End Page 485]
Fortunately, the study is redeemed by its closing chapter, which offers an insightful and well-informed discussion about what five centuries of mutualism can tells us about the principles and practices of mutual insurance. Van Leeuwen convincingly argues that the Dutch case reveals valuable lessons, especially about what mutual insurance can contribute to today's global challenges concerning access, coverage, and sustainability of insurance arrangements. Is mutualism a viable alternative for state-run social security or commercial insurance? Opinions differ, but according to Van Leeuwen, in some cases and for some groups, it just might be. Throughout history, mutual insurers have found sometimes ingenious ways to combine what...