The evil of Insurance

01Nov08

Health and safety has gone mad: I bought a poppy today, and got a lecture from the poppy seller about the correct method of attaching the poppy to my person with the pin, in a way such that I avoid injuring myself with said pin! I was torn between hilarity and irritation. Hilarity because as a textile artist I regularly accidentally prong myself with either a needle or a pin (I have learnt to work with a thimble and finger-guard, but I still regularly stick myself) so I’m not particularly concerned about one more prick (if you’ll pardon the expression). Irritation, because surely the majority of people are intelligent enough to figure out for themselves that pins are sharp and should not, generally, be stuck into oneself. And, that, if one chooses to attach a poppy to oneself with a pin, that one accepts that there may be a slight risk that one sticks oneself occasionally with aforementioned pin. Actually, I felt sorry for the poppy seller – I was faffing about with one of the kids and heard the poor woman repeat the same speech at least five times to subsequent purchasers of poppy. And almost every one of those five people made some sort of derisory comment about the need for her speech. It’s not her fault: she has to do it to comply with health and safety regulations, apparently.

I’d be fairly sceptical of there being a HSE directive regarding the use of pins with poppies, but I’m pretty willing to believe that the charity is wary of any activity which may be perceived as being dangerous and may, in some sort of freak incident where some imbecile either doesn’t know pins are sharp or doesn’t know how to use one, cause a serious injury.

We live in a blame culture. Accidents are not acts of god or fate or karma or some sort of vengeful nemesis. They are no longer random accumulations of bad luck, or bad circumstance, which add up to a calamity causing chaos and injury to some poor unsuspecting body on the receiving end of a cosmic backlash. In times gone by, I suppose we blamed god (or the gods) for such things, shrugged, mourned, and got on with our life. Not any more. Each one of these incidents is now SOMEONE’s fault. For every trip, fall, crash, flood, burn, injury or accident there is a single person or corporation (or person within a corporation) who can be singled out as being the direct cause of the severity of the accident. And where blame can be allocated, compensation can be claimed.

Compensation?! I’ve read endless articles decrying the litiginous society we now live in, and a lot of commentators pointing fingers at the culture of claim/litigate/compensate prevalent in the US and how this invidious practice has permeated the UK and further. I disagree. Yes, I think that this trend started in the US, but the UK is to blame.

Why?

Because the UK invented insurance. Uh-huh. Where there is compensation, very often it is the insurance company that is paying out, not the individual. And when it comes to parting an insurance company from its money (our money, actually), the words ‘blood’ and ‘stone’ come to mind. If blame can be attached to a third party, then it is not the principal’s fault, and therefore his or her insurance company does not have to pay out. That is a good thing for the insurance company, and a good thing for the principal – their premiums do not go up, they do not lose their no-claims bonus/discount.  AND they get a cash bonus to compensate for their loss/inconvenience. Now, when we’re talking cars or fences, or even roofs and stolen bicycles, cash can and does compensate for loss and inconvenience.

But when we’re talking about lives and businesses, does it really? How much is the life of a child worth? How much is the life of a partner, or a parent worth? Or the loss of a limb or some other vital function? How does a cash payment help when it comes too late to save a small business that’s been flooded or burned or burgled?

I’m not convinced that cash is the answer. What helps the grieving and healing process is an acknowledgement, a recognition, an acceptance. Cash in lieu of an apology is not enough. It doesn’t bring back what has been lost, and it doesn’t help the healing process.

The problem is, that we are no longer allowed to apologise. Our car insurance policy gives us a little card that gives us some handy phrases if we are involved in an accident. “Are you OK?” is an acceptable phrase. “I’m sorry” is not, because it could be construed as an admission of liability. And of course, that means that the blame can be pinned to you, which makes it your fault, which means that you must pay. It’s got to be the single biggest fueller of anger going. What’s wrong with a simple sorry?

When insurance was first conceived, it was a mutual savings pool intended to protect a given community against a specific loss. It was universal, and generous in intention: if a house burned down, the neighbours helped rebuild it. Merchants distributed their cargos across a number of vessels to reduce the loss if one capsized. In ancient Greece and Rome, benevolent societies paid for the funeral expenses and cared for the families of members. Friendly societies in England, the first modern versions of insurance, served a similar purpose.

That purpose has been subverted so far by the organisations that now try to present themselves as caring, protective beneficial safety-nets for us – to protect our health, our homes, our cars, our businesses – our reputations, even – when in actuality they have become massive profit-orientated entitities whose objective appears to be avoiding paying out any of the premiums they’ve earned from us in whatever way possible. And that way is to try to shift blame: nothing can happen anymore that cannot be allocated to the action of an individual. And until that individual’s insurance company can be brought to accept that they individual is both responsible and liable, and that the policy of that individual covers the event in question, not a penny leaves.

It makes us a poorer society. Poorer, because those businesses hit by fire or flood or other catastrophe cannot be confident that they will recoup their losses. I declare an interest: the craft gallery which recently agreed to sell my work got flooded, and is now caught in a three-way scrap between insurance companies over who should pay out. In the meantime, the business is closed, and will remain so until there is agreement: without out, nothing can be cleaned up. Customers drift away, stock deteriorates, artists move on. The business goes under. Not fair? Damn straight. Poorer on another front: fear of insurance liability has made us overly-cautious. We cannot purchase our poppies without warnings anymore. We cannot be involved in accidents any more and say sorry, or take basic, courteous care of our neighbours without worrying if we will fall foul of our insurance by doing so. It’s wrong. The profit motive is driving our behaviour, and tight-fisted grasping is driving out decency and courtesy.

I don’t like it. I think there has been enough of this name and blame and shame. It’s time to call an end to it. If it’s your fault, apologise and be damned for it. Your insurance company won’t love you for it, but people will. It’s time to stop the double dealing and to start trying to be honest with each other.

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One Response to “The evil of Insurance”


  1. 1 Pages tagged "invidious"

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