The first Christmas after my wife and I were
married, we received an interesting gift from her grandparents-- a
year's worth of dues for membership at their Moose lodge. We had
visited the lodge with them and other family members, using the
expansive dance floor in a conservative setting to two-step our way
to an enjoyable evening. But we had never seriously considered becoming
Exercising the gift meant joining the lodge and going
through its applications and initiation rites. The paperwork was
modest, but the initiation ceremony was more painful: mostly
long-winded and intensely boring, but also occasionally interesting
and quite memorable. The devotion to the causes they supported was
admirable; the extent to which moderately educated folks had gone to
memorize relatively lengthy parts of the ceremony was impressive; and
the rituals within the ceremony were odd and even a bit
Unfortunately, the men and women were seated
separately, so my wife and I didn't even have the pleasure of
exchanging notes, whispers, and smiles. Over the next year, we still
went to the lodge only with family and then did not renew our
membership. For better or worse, my days as a loyal Moose had ended.
David Beito's book, From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State: Fraternal Societies and Social Services, 1890-1967,
provided much-needed context to my short encounter with the Moose.
The text is well written and scrupulously documented, including
surveys and empirical studies of organizational performance. Beito
provides both a useful overview and tremendous detail about the various
historical contexts in which fraternal societies operated and the
variety of functions they tried to serve. (The details can be skimmed
or absorbed, depending on one's level of interest.)
notes that fraternals were especially prominent in the United States
during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, developing
as disposable income, immigration, and domestic migration to cities all
increased. They were larger than any other voluntary association
(possibly excepting churches), having one-third of all males as
members in 1920.
Groups such as Masons, Moose, and Odd Fellows were,
in essence, middle-class versions of Edmund Burke's “little
platoons,” formed on the basis of common social traits (class and
ethnicity), common moral values (patriotism and thrift), and economic
needs (insurance and safety-net assistance). Fraternals acted as a
forum for entertainment and promoted social cohesion. But perhaps
most importantly, they provided mutual aid to members in distress and
formed cooperatives that efficiently took care of health care, life
insurance (even dominating the field for a time), and funeral benefits
(“to avoid a pauper's grave”).
Beito also devotes a number of chapters
to the special projects of fraternals - namely, orphanages and
hospitals. Fraternals declined precipitously in the 1930s, as their
usefulness diminished in the face of social, economic, and political
competition, especially from the government's leaps into realms
originally covered by fraternals (such as Social Security and
A Third Category of Assistance
adds much to both the history and the contemporary debate over
public welfare and private charity. That said, fraternal efforts to
render assistance belong in a third category. Although assistance
rendered to needy fraternal members was privately provided, it was
not considered charity. Within fraternals, there was the probability
of “direct reciprocity,” meaning that the recipient today could
become the donor tomorrow. The assistance - because it was between
members - was viewed very differently from charity. In Beito's
example, the Odd Fellows used the terms benefit and right instead of charity and relief to denote this difference.
Beito's approach is from a different angle than Marvin Olasky's in his seminal work, The Tragedy of American Compassion.
Whereas Olasky emphasizes the perspective of the aid-givers within
charity and welfare, Beito focuses on the prospective recipients.
Olasky's “supply-side” approach analyzes the debate within the
aid-giving community: how and to whom to render assistance. By
contrast, Beito's “demand-side” analysis discusses how the needy
passionately wanted to avoid the stigma of accepting welfare or
charity (again, defined as assistance without direct reciprocity).
Fraternals provided a popular way to avoid this stigma, ensuring one
against life's trials without having to accept “hierarchical” relief
from relatively wealthy outsiders in a manner that was often
adversarial, patronizing, and degrading.
fraternals elicited a combination of social cooperation and
individualism - a willingness to help but a pride in self-reliance.
Further, fraternals did police their own. The rituals for which
fraternals are perhaps most famous were initially embraced to foil
attempts to obtain assistance fraudulently. Moreover, the rituals
were constructed in a way that taught moral and practical lessons.
Benets were usually conditional on appropriate conduct and membership
in good standing. Such behavioral regulations derived from a desire
not only to enforce conformity to social and cultural norms but also
to protect the fraternal's investments, especially in life insurance.
Beito notes that they were practicing “actuarial science in an
Quaint Curiosities of a Bygone Age?
only is Beito's study historically interesting, but it is also
relevant today. First, the book is replete with examples of the use
of government by interest groups to restrict the “economic activity”
of fraternals (chiefly in health care and life insurance)-- a very common
practice today. For example, Beito devotes a chapter to “the evil of
the lodge practice,” where doctors contracted with lodges to provide
general medical care for a fixed fee. (This was a natural way for
some doctors to get started in the profession, giving them an
established base and the ability to easily develop community
contacts.) These service providers were slandered and even blackballed
by the American Medical Association, since they undercut wages.
Although lodge doctors may have, on average, provided lower-quality
care, they did provide lower-cost service to those who could not
afford higher prices. This practice was eventually eliminated through
persecution by the AMA and through the increasing effectiveness of
its cartel, which restricted the overall number of licensed doctors.
Second, fraternals were largely successful in areas where private
charity and government remain largely unsuccessful today, especially
working in cities, dealing with the needy, and providing competent,
low-cost health careers - as where fraternals were most active. With
respect to fraternal social welfare models, Beito argues that it
would be foolish either to recreate them or to dismiss them as “the
quaint curiosities of a bygone era.” That said, fraternals clearly have
lessons to teach us about the importance of subsidiarity and the
“little platoons” throughout society that pragmatically address
In his Encyclical Letter Quadragesimo Anno (no. 78), Pius XI noted - even in 1931 - that
we speak of the reform of institutions, the State comes chiefly to mind
[because of the] near extinction of that rich social life which
was once highly developed through associations of various kinds.
This is to the great harm of the State itself, for with a structure
of social governance lost, and with the taking over of all the
burdens which the wrecked associations once bore, the State has
been overwhelmed and crushed by almost infinite tasks and duties.
this is more true today. With the continued growth of government and
the subsequent atrophy of the little platoons, society finds itself
relying on the state, which cannot solve these problems adequately, if
at all. Therefore, the hope is that non-governmental entities - most
notably the church, but also private health care insurance co-ops,
modestly resurgent fraternal societies, and other groups - will
emerge in the coming years.