In the twentieth century, the government took over many civic functions—schooling, aiding the poor, policing—that in the nineteenth and eighteenth centuries were largely handled by nonprofits. But nonprofits are again making their presence known, and the twenty-first century may become known as the time nonprofits began to regain their civic responsibilities, even as the welfare state began to shrink. This prospect should give much food for thought to the imaginative donors who make nonprofit entrepreneurs possible.
In The Voluntary City, writers look to the past—in particular, to Victorian society—to see what nonprofits were able to accomplish before the emergence of the welfare state.
The book is a curious amalgam. One of the editors, University of Alabama historian David T. Beito, is an expert on the poverty-fighting benefits conferred by nineteenth-century fraternal orders. A second editor, UCLA economist Peter Gordon, is an authority on reforming zoning laws. Along with Independent Institute vice president Alexander Tabarrok, Beito and Gordon have compiled an anthology that is half about social programs and half about land-use planning.
The most informative paper is by Stephen Davies, a historian at Britain’s Manchester Metropolitan University. Davies observes that England did not have a national police force until about 1850, though some of the larger cities (most notably London) had city-run forces. So he asks a basic question, “How were criminals caught before the government entered the crime-fighting business?”
The answer is “prosecution associations,” whose history has only recently been recovered. It’s unclear how many of these groups existed (estimates range up to 4,000), but they were small, local groups that arose out of community concerns about rising crime. By pooling resources, some groups raised money in order to offer greater rewards to bounty hunters than they otherwise could as individuals. Other groups paid for private community police forces; one census in 1828 found 45 parishes within ten miles of London had private forces (which sometimes assisted cops employed by London).
Most of these private forces were nationalized in the 1840s, after the British government argued that only a national police force could protect citizens should a state-wide workers’ revolt occur. Since statistics are scarce, it’s hard to say whether the national police force was more or less effective in crime-fighting than the prosecution associations. But Davies’ paper shows there were serious alternatives to a nationalized force. “The kind of policing we have today is not the only inevitable form for urban, industrialized societies,” he says. “It is simply the form that was chosen at a particular point of historical time, in preference to others.”
Medical care issues were another focus of nonprofits in the Victorian period, and two essays examine how fraternal orders worked to aid the poor who needed medical assistance as well as companionship and support. In the first paper editor Beito shows that at the turn of the century, 9 percent of Americans belonged to a fraternal order such as the Foresters and the Odd Fellows. These orders, or “lodges,” provided workers with life insurance and doctors and were quite successful. By 1925, Beito notes, over 120,000 lodges existed across the country before the rising welfare state and unsympathetic medical societies stopped their growth. These lodges were replicated in Australia and England, and David Green of the British think tank Civitas shows in his essay that Australia and Britain, like America, also operated fraternal orders (called “friendly societies”) that provided medical care and insurance to working-class people.
Of course Victorian healthcare was primitive in comparison with today’s practices, and Green and Beito aren’t suggesting a return to medical care delivered through fraternal orders. Yet the author’s research demonstrates that creative, free-market approaches to managing health care were stifled, and not allowed to grow and develop, as Britain nationalized its health insurance and America decided to heavily regulate its own. Vestiges of these lodges’ creativity and power is still evident today, in institutions such as the 22 Shriners hospitals across North America.
All in all, The Voluntary City reminds us that studying nonprofit history is important for donors. By examining the inventiveness of nineteenth-century nonprofits, we are reminded that even with such complicated problems as health care and crime, there may be alternatives to state measures—if only the private sector is permitted to exercise its creativity.