Austrian Economics Wiki

Firms and individuals can be sub­ject to risks which, in the aggregate, form a class of homogene­ous cases. For example, out of a thousand firms, no one knows if a given firm will suffer a fire next year or not; but it is fairly well known that ten of them will. In that case, it may be of advantage for each of the firms to "take out insurance". They can pool their risks of loss, or a specialized firm, an "insurance company", can organize the pooling for them. Each firm will pay a certain premium, which will go into a pool to compensate those firms which suf­fer the fires.

And that is the principle of insurance.[1]

Basic Concepts[]

Insurance and Probability[]

Case probability[]

Case probability means, that we know some of the factors which determine the outcome of a particular event; but there are other determining factors which we don't know. The cases are individual, unique, and nonrepeatable, their result is uncertain. If in roulette a ball falls ten times on red in succession, the probability, that in the next turn will be the result black, is not greater than it was before. Football games cannot be predicted on the results of last games, nor can be presidential elections.[2]

Instances of case probability are uninsurable.[1]

Class probability[]

Class probability means, that we know nothing about an individual outcome, but we know everything about a whole class of events, and are certain about the future. In a lottery, for example, we know how many tickets are in total and how many will be drawn. But that does not say at all, if a particular ticket or tickets will win, and buying more tickets does not increase the chance of winning. An instance of class probability is called risk. It is possible to insure against risk, because the behavior of a class of events (or a reasonable subset of it) is well known.[3]

The field for the application of class probability is the field of the natural sciences, ruled by causality.[4]

Risk and Insurance[]

Risk occurs when an event is a member of a class of a large number of homogeneous events and there is fairly certain knowledge of the fre­quency of occurrence of this class of events. For example, a firm producing bolts knows from long experience that, say, 1 percent of these bolts will be defective. It will not know whether any given bolt will be de­fective, but it will know the proportion of the total number. This knowledge can be converted into a definite cost of the firm’s operations, especially where enough cases occur within a firm. In other situations, a given loss or hazard may be large and infrequent in relation to a firm’s oper­ations (such as the risk of fire), but over a large number of firms it could be considered as a "measurable" or actuarial risk. The firms can pool their risks, or a specialized firm - an insurance company - could organize the pooling for them.

Profit and loss are the results of entrepreneurial uncertainty. Actuarial risk is converted into a cost of business operation and is not responsible for profits or losses except in so far as the actuarial estimates are wrong.[1]

Main article: Probability

Homogeneity of classes[]

As soon as something spe­cific is known about individual cases, firms break down the cases into subaggregates to maintain homogeneity of classes, i.e., the similarity, as far as is known, of all individual members in the class with respect to the attribute in question. Thus, cer­tain subgroups within one age group may have a higher mor­tality rate because of their occupation; these will be segregated, and different premiums applied to the two cases. If there were knowledge about differences between subgroups, and insurance firms charged the same premium rate to all, then this would mean that the healthy or “less risky” groups would be subsidizing the riskier. Unless they specifically desire to grant such subsidies, this result will never be maintained in the competitive free market. In the free market each homogeneous group will tend to pay premium rates in proportion to its actuarial risk, plus a sum for interest income and for necessary costs for the insurance firms.[1]


All providers of insurance have to cope with two major problems:

  • Moral hazard describes the changes in an insured individual's conduct - since he does not bear the full costs of his actions, it results in higher-risk exposure than occurs without insurance.
  • Adverse selection refers to the greater tendency of high-risk individuals to subscribe to insurance, which raises the price of insurance and can lead to the breakdown of the insurance market.[5]


Friendly societies[]

Various forms of friendly societies have existed since ancient China, Greece, and Rome. In Britain, they arose out of the guild system. Daniel Defoe wrote in 1697 that friendly societies were "very extensive" in England. In the mid-18th century, as the Industrial Revolution hastened the growth of British towns, the friendly society system became well established. Sometimes they were called fraternal societies, mutual aid societies, or benefit clubs. Similar organizations developed in the United States in the 19th century. Friendlies usually were formed by people with a common denominator, like the same occupation or same ethnic, geographic, or religious background.

Their lengthy success reflects that they were much more than benefit institutions. Friendlies were voluntary serf-help associations, organized by the members themselves. Friendlies served social, educational, and economic functions, bringing the idea of insurance and savings to those who might not have planned for the future. The social aspect of the friendlies should not be underestimated. Their meetings included lectures, dramatic performances, and dances both to inform and to entertain members.

Nineteenth-century commercial insurance companies couldn’t compete with the friendlies, so they focused on business clients and the rich. Workers were suspicious of the companies because of their numerous failures and scandals. Besides, insurance rates were higher than those the friendlies charged for comparable benefits.

Originally, friendlies insured against "disability to work," with little distinction between accident or sickness. This also came to mean "infirmity," i.e., insurance against old age. Most friendlies paid for a doctor’s services, burial expenses, life insurance, annuities to widows, and educational expenses for orphans. They built old-age homes and sanitariums for members and their families. Even in their early stages, they offered unemployment benefits for those in "distressed circumstances" or "on travel in search of employment." The most common pay-outs were for maternity leave and retirement pensions.[6]

A local country society had usually few members, reaching tens or at most hundreds of individuals (in some cases also covering the families of those insured). Until the 1820s, most friendly societies were local. Due to their vulnerability to adverse conditions and actuarial risks, they organized into "affiliated orders". (The "Independent Order of Odd Fellows" had 781 lodges with 47,638 members around 1835; at the end of 1886 there were 4,351 lodges, with 617,587 members.) The local lodges kept control of their sick insurance to prevent moral hazard. As the problem does not arise with burial insurance, there was a central funeral fund. Besides the actuarial importance of a greater pool of members, other advantages included more skilled management, more transparent rules, and the possibility of transferring benefits to a different part of the country - or even to the colonies if the worker moved. It was mainly the affiliated orders that spread, the idea of fraternalism to the United States. At its apex in the 1920s, roughly every third adult American male belonged to a fraternal society.

All societies formally refused applicants who were younger or older than a certain age, had serious or chronic health problems, or were employed in extremely risky occupations. But the requirements were relaxed in practice and even the poorer members of society could get insurance within the fraternal movement. High-risk workers, like miners and railway workers, mostly formed their own societies, paying higher premiums due to a higher risk of disability. (Part of the insurance was paid by the employer. Most English miners have been members to a friendly society, a similar system worked in Prussia, which served as a model for Bismarck’s system of compulsory insurance.)[5]

The friendlies did not collapse financially. Nor did they disappear because they failed to do their job for working people. They declined because of government action.

In Britain, the aristocrats feared the friendlies because they viewed their huge contributor funds as a means for political subversion. Eventually, a steadily growing web of uniform state-mandated benefits first duplicated, then absorbed the friendlies. The National Insurance Act of 1911 made insurance mandatory for some professions. State benefits were expanded, financed by compulsory contributions from employer and employee. Via subsidies, the friendlies were led to administer the state plan. Claims for benefits had to be filed with both systems. After WWII were the friendlies bypassed, and the loss of funding and higher state benefit rates drove many of them out of existence.

In the US, the friendlies pressed for their own legislation, forcing all new friendlies to adopt the same mortality rates. This would put them at a competitive disadvantage to the established societies. Instead of driving off the upstarts, this legislation blurred the distinction between friendlies and commercial life insurance companies. Legally they were grouped together. As a result, the commercial insurance companies gradually absorbed the friendlies.[6]

In both countries was the movement towards mandatory insurance supported by the medical profession. Where the friendly societies tried to secure good-quality health care for their members at reasonable prices, the doctors "felt strongly that conditions they had accepted in the marketplace should not be imposed on them by the state" and eventually "freed themselves from lay control."[5]

Insurance in the USA[]

The US property- and casualty-insurance regulation system claims to perform two main functions. First, to ensure insurers hold enough capital to remain solvent. All developed countries regulate solvency of their insurance companies in one way or another. The second function is to make insurance "affordable," that means price control. There are differences between states, but in most of the country, insurers need to have their rates authorized if they want to write insurance using them. The simplest way to improve insurer's solvency is to keep the premiums high, and to improve 'affordability' the premiums have to be low. Regulators claim they know how to strike the perfect balance.

The "affordability" function of the regulation resulted from the Sherman Antitrust Act. Historically, it was common practice for insurers to share their claims data for the purpose of insurance-rate making. Having access to good claims data meant that insurance companies could price and manage their business better, and expand and enter new market segments. The Sherman Act became effective for insurance in 1944, when the Supreme Court decided that insurance was interstate commerce and therefore should be regulated by Congress. As a result, the useful practice of data sharing, was outlawed by federal antitrust regulation.

But before the era of cheap computers, insurance could not exist without the data-sharing arrangements. So the McCarran-Ferguson Act was introduced in 1945, allowing the industry to return to the old practices but instructing the states to "protect" customers. And so, government involvement in rate making was mandated, without eliminating the allegedly undesirable claims-data sharing.

As is usually the case with other forms of price control, insurance-pricing regulation creates shortages. For example, since 1977 the Massachusetts Division of Insurance has been setting individual auto insurance rates for the entire state. Every insurer operating in the Commonwealth has had to use the government rates or leave the state. Since then, the number of insurers has fallen from more than 100 to just 19. In 2008 was the situation so dire that the current commissioner actually decided to liberalize the regime slightly to prevent more citizens from driving uninsured.[7]

Insurance in the UK[]

Until recently, British property and casualty pricing was totally unregulated. Regulators concentrated on the solvency function. The long tradition of freedom of enterprise resulted in the emergence of the unique London market of insurance. For centuries, London was the only place on Earth where it was possible to place big and nonstandard risks. Even today, if one wants to insure a power plant or a system of telecommunication satellites, London is the place to get it done.

The lack of pricing regulation in the United Kingdom resulted in a large number of pricing innovations being developed and tested there. A good example is the so-called GLM statistical approach, a mathematical methodology developed by two British actuarial software companies in the late '90s. Stripped-down versions of this innovation have since been exported to the United States and implemented with a few years' lag. Eventually, even the regulators started using GLM for granting rate approvals.

The same process is happening with actuarial-reserving and capital-modeling techniques and software. Since excessive regulation in the United States cripples innovative actuarial thought, most of the inventions are being developed in the United Kingdom and simply shipped across the Atlantic.

The less-regulated market gives Britons access to better insurance services. For example, a very sophisticated broker market has developed in the United Kingdom, providing policyholders with specialized products and advice. Complex nationwide software platforms created by the broker community allow huge price-comparison websites to provide millions of policyholders with binding quotes from nearly a hundred insurers in a few minutes.

Another example is the ease with which new insurance products can be created. In the US, the state regulators get very involved in the classification rules, underwriting guides, and even wording of the insurance contract. As a result, most private motor policies written in the last 30 years in the US have been written on one of the few standard ISO forms or some modifications of those. In the United Kingdom, where consenting parties are freer to enter an insurance contract of their choice, independent insurance brokers provide dozens of different policy wordings tailored to specific market segments. That means more choice for the customer.[7]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Murray N. Rothbard. "9. Risk, Uncertainty, and Insurance", Man, Economy and State online version, referenced 2009-12-04.
  2. Ludwig von Mises. "4. Case Probability", Human Action, online version, referenced 2009-10-10.
  3. Ludwig von Mises. "3. Class Probability", Human Action, online version, referenced 2009-10-10.
  4. Ludwig von Mises. "2. The Meaning of Probability", Human Action, online version, referenced 2009-12-04.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Pavel Chalupnicek and Lukas Dvorak. "Health Insurance before the Welfare State - The Destruction of Self-Help by State Intervention" (pdf), The Independent Review, volume 13, n. 3, Winter 2009. Referenced 2010-01-08.
  6. 6.0 6.1 John Chodes. "Friendly Societies: Voluntary Social Security And More", The Freeman, March 1990, Volume: 40, Issue: 3. Referenced 2010-01-07.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Jan Iwanik. "The Regulated Insurance Market", Mises Daily, posted on November 17 2009, referenced 2010-01-07.

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