"The Illustrated London News article regarding the Government Annuities Bill. Nothing so easily and effectually puts the optimist believer in the English character into a passion as an insinuation that the people of this country are not absolutely capable of self-government. If a too-watchful Minister hits an administrative blot in any matter not under the immediate supervision of the State, he is as nearly as possible denounced as a traitor to one of the great principles of British liberty, and he is accused of endeavouring to bring about a system of centralisation, and to be a secret but active agent on behalf of something like despotism. The latest offender in this sense is the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who, having brought in a bill of very modest dimensions which enables the Government to hold out to the purely industrial classes the means of obtaining annuities and the advantages of life insurance on the most moderate scale, for which the State gives security, has suddenly found himself in the very centre of a horde of supporters of certain alleged vested interests. The minor insurance offices and the friendly societies are up in arms against an attempt on the part of the Government to do well and securely for the working classes that which they have attempted to do for themselves, and in too many instances lamentably failed to effect, if nothing worse. An organised opposition?a suggestive phrase, and well understood by a certain class of agents of the most general capabilities?has been pitted against the scheme of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who, finding himself at bay, has turned and literally ripped up the system with which he proposes to compete.
On Monday last Mr. Gladstone stated his case, and in a speech which was cognate to that famous intellectual effort last year in which he laid bare the weaknesses and the iniquities which have intruded themselves into the system of endowed charities, left to the most assured of his opponents but one argument, and that almost ad misericordiam?namely, that in a matter of such importance time and opportunity for the most ample consideration of his measure should be given. The object of the bill is to afford to the purchaser of a small an?nuity, or to the provident working man who seeks the benefit of life insurance, a security which is now attainable only by the comparatively wealthy. Even at the present time, when societies for life insurance are included practically, if not avowedly, in the speculative schemes of the day, it is in the power of a man of comparative wealth to select from a goodly-number which are in existence an association for the insurance of his life, which has been for many years go managed that it counts its accumulations by sums which stand for hundreds of thousands, and even of millions, and therefore holds out as good a security to its policy-holders as is possible in insti?tutions established on commercial principles. With ordinary circumspection, no member of the highest or the middle class need incur any risk in the matter of life assurance. It is, unhappily, far otherwise with those whom, for want of a better phrase, we call the poorer classes. They, as a body, are far from insensible to the benefits derivable from associations which enable thrift and providence to reap their ultimate reward. Accordingly, friendly societies and benefit clubs, applicable to old age, sickness, and burial, ramify through the country, and, on the face of them, seem to supply a demand which is highly creditable to those who make it. A class of smaller insurance offices, which operate by a wide-spread system of local agencies, comes in to afford facilities for such provision as prudent men of industrial pursuits are able to secure for their families ; and it would thus appear on the surface that all that is needed is in actual operation ; and that it is only the careless, the unthoughtful, and the spendthrift, in every rank of life, who do not acknowledge in practice the philanthropic efforts of a number of more or less disinterested persons to bring peace of mind and hope for the future to every homestead in the country. What the real state of the case as regards the humbler classes is let the speech of Mr. Gladstone tell.
Into the painful details of that remarkable exposition it is not necessary to enter. Suffice it to say that it was shown to demonstration that the majority of the associations which hold cut inducements for the investment of the savings of the humbler classes are based on fallacious principles and unsound calcu?lations; and the fact is patent that every year some?in truth, a great many?of them collapse, with results to the confiding members that are only too obvious. No one ventures to deny this; not even those half-informed members, who prate loudly about interference with the right and the capability of the working classes to manage their own affairs in reference to a matter in which self-government is positively absent?for all these associations are really managed by a few officials?can deny that a state of things exists which demands a remedy. It may be that the measure proposed by Mr. Gladstone is not the best remedy; but, whether it come into operation or not, its introduction will have done a vast deal of good. The comparatively feeble opposition to the bill in its discussion on Monday night was based on the ground that its immediate operation?nay, the effect of its discussion?would be the destruction, prompt and sudden, o? a number of friendly societies and insurance associations. It seems to us that this is an admission of the whole case against these institutions. Their innate weakness and fallibility are therefore not gainsaid. It cannot be said that such of them as will topple over before the blast of the Chancellor of the Exchequer's speech are not practically fraudu?lent recipients of the poor man's hard earnings, which in process of time, more or less short, will disappear amidst the crash o? associations to which they are committed. Is it not, then, an absolute, mercy to make quick work of such unstable concerns, and to prevent their going on ''rotting half a grain a day"" towards ultimate dissolution. At least there would be gained this advantage, that the loss of the contributors would stop where it is; and those who have the heart and the courage to retain their provident habits under circumstances of such less and discouragement as must inevitably come upon them would have an opportunity of beginning again in a new insti?tution which not only holds out but positively affords the blessing of security.
As we have already intimated, it is possible to argue that the proposition of Mr. Gladstone is not perfect as a cure for an acknowledged evil of no common magnitude. It may be open to the charge of being a violation of that common law of political economy, non-interference by the State in personal transactions; but the question is, whether the interference of Government is not as justifiable in this instance as in some few others?the Factory Act, for example, where the necessity of helping those who were unable to help themselves has induced Parliament to interpose and to set aside a principle which is justly dear to all Englishmen? It is clear that a great social and moral evil exists which can only be met by legislation; and, certainly, the legislation which is proposed in the bill of Mr. Gladstone is of the gentlest and least aggressive character. To use his own language, the measure prohibits nothing and enjoins nothing, but only furnishes facilities for that ""self-help"" which so eminently characterises our industrial classes, and which at present is in too many instances neutralised and frustrated. It is a refuge to which the provident man amongst the humbler classes can resort when he becomes conscious that he has been the victim of a fallacious and delusive system of investment.
With the sound, safe, and long-established assurance societies the Government measure cannot possibly interfere. It cannot affect or influence legitimate transactions in the least degree; but it can do much to diminish the confessed evils connected with institutions spread over the country, which are ignorantly, carelessly, and even fraudulently conducted, which absorb the contributions of the members in agency and expenses of management, or a few practically irresponsible managers of which, as has been shown in several instances, squander them on their feastings and pleasures. We believe the time which has been granted for consideration and inquiry, and, as it has been said with a certain grim humour, to produce an answer to the statements of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, will give opportunity for proof of the monstrous evil which is spread over the whole country; and that in the result the main objection to the measure of the Government will be, not its sweeping character, but its actual inadequacy to the necessity of the case."