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History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 14: Welfare •


Book cover: Betting on Lives: The Culture of Life Insurance in England

Author's response


Betting on Lives: The Culture of Life Insurance in England, 1695-1775

Geoffrey Clark
Manchester University Press: Manchester, 1999
ISBN-13: 978-0-7190-5675-8

Eva Rosenhaft

University of Liverpool

I would first like to thank Dr. Rosenhaft for her thoughtful and informed reading of Betting on Lives and for her generous review of my book. I offer the following brief comments both in acknowledgement and in order to respond to an incisive criticism she raises against parts of its argument. On at least one point Dr. Rosenhaft and I wholeheartedly agree, however, and that is on the need for further research into the history of insurance and for its fuller integration into established branches of intellectual, cultural, social, economic, and even political historiography (as François Ewald has shown with respect to the intertwined histories of insurance and the state). Dr. Rosenhaft correctly notes that the historical study of life insurance and related risk management strategies are as yet at an early stage of development, and a good deal of spade work remains to be done, particularly in continental Europe. I eagerly await the appearance of this scholarship, both for its intrinsic interest and because it will allow Betting on Lives to stand as a reference point for comparative studies.

I expect that at the end of the day the history of life insurance in England will continue to be seen as quite exceptional in its precocity, in the range of its market and usage, and in the degree of legal indulgence (or neglect) it enjoyed. Still, these expectations are derived from my acquaintance primarily with prescriptive, not descriptive records from continental Europe, and my views might possibly be altered should historians of Italy, Spain, or France, for example, discover illicit markets in life underwriting or adequate forms of indemnity (such as annuities or the kinds of pension schemes studied by George Alter and James Riley for the Netherlands) that might have served as functional equivalents. The distinctive legal history of insurance in England can also be thrown into relief by close studies of the wave of insurance prohibitions enacted across Europe from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries. What were in fact the principle considerations behind these bans, and how effective were they? And what can the gradual legal recognition and social acceptance of life insurance in the nineteenth century tell us about evolving norms of behaviour and religious sensibilities, a topic explored by Viviana Zelizer in the case of the United States? To what extent did the growth after 1800 of the life insurance market outside the Anglo-American zone depend, as it did in early eighteenth-century England, on the paradoxical combination of prudential impulses towards security and speculative visions of economic betterment?

It is in connection to this last question that Dr. Rosenhaft finds an imbalance in my treatment, on the one hand, of the rational, prudential dimension to Augustan practices of insuring lives, as against the concurrent influence of appetitive fantasy. Since I devoted considerable space in my book to the imaginative aspects of life insurance promotion and consumption, and supplied all the examples cited by Dr. Rosenhaft as purported evidence of this shortcoming, I find this criticism less justified than her related charge that I failed later in the book to honour this inherent tension in the marketing and consumption of life insurance. I agree that the extract from page 105 that she cites softens the paradox, and might profitably be reformulated, but my intention there was to recognise the contingent possibilities contained in the early life insurance movement (which conceivably could have followed a variety of evolutionary paths) rather than be tied to a teleological account of the modern capitalist corporation that forecloses those potentialities.

To emphases historical alternatives is to call once again for comparative studies of what Barry Supple has called the "insurance habit", a subject whose scholarly literature remains far out of proportion to its importance and pervasiveness in the industrialised world.

September 2000

Original review

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