“Insured” but not secure

Comments- The total refusal of vulnerability, the spread of contracts, the pacts crisis

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire on 24/06/2012


The biggest difficulty we face in order to come out of the crisis doesn’t lie in the choices made by the institutions, or in politics in Europe, but in our lifestyles which in these last few years have undergone a radical change.  This is the reason for the difficulty in finding a way, because while we complain with words, our behaviour increases day by day that very model of growth against which we raise our voices and which brings much suffering to many (although not to all).  This is perhaps the greatest paradox in this phase of Capitalism.

Let’s take insurance companies as an important example.  In looking for the common good, it is evident that insurance has an important function:  the possibility of being able to insure oneself against risky and uncertain events generally betters the wellbeing of people and the common good.

A hypothetical world without insurance would be worse from all points of view and would be worse especially for the most fragile parts of a population.  But, as in all good things in life,  knowing  the right measure is crucial, and being able to pinpoint the limit or critical point of no-return in order to keep that good from becoming evil.

Regarding this, we should reflect more on that rising phenomenon which we could call “World Insurance,” that is, the progressive and rapid enlargement of the area of social life covered by insurance contracts.  We don’t see this only with auto insurance, which in a few years has gone from a simple RC to coverage for vandalism, unforeseen atmospheric events, or to the need of a technician in order to mount snow tires in the case of a sudden snowfall.  We also see it much more often in the fact that teachers have to insure themselves against any possible accident during school trips and many other events.  ‘Well……’ someone might say that, with these insurance policies we are able to do many more things than if we didn’t have this coverage.  Attention though! “I say,” because during this process, as well as raising the not so little cost for families, it tends to wear at the interpersonal relationships, and create always greater insecurities which will later cause other contracts to be proposed to us and so forth.

But there’s more.  If a citizen knows that that particular place in social life is covered by insurance, data, as well as our experiences, tell us that there is likelihood the insured will increase the number of claims, court cases and conflicts.  As long as we are talking about vehicles, all of this, even though serious (as insurance companies know well), deal with areas not always central or crucial to our lives.  But if this phenomenon (suing, demands for damages, moral suffering, etc…) begin to extend and include the areas of health, school, and civil life, its effects could become very serious, as is happening and can be seen already.  Let us not even mention the logic that lies at the base of the ‘’derivative titles” that come from it (one of the major causes of financial instability) which are sophisticated forms of insurance (or better, bets) where profits are made over people’s tragedies.

Finally, insurances’ hyper-coverage produces another effect which enters into the heart of social and relational life.  Some years ago a fire destroyed part of a home belonging to a friend of mine.  A few friends began to arrive with offers of help, but as soon as they realized he was insured, they  happily returned home, knowing that ’someone else’ would take care of it.   What a pity, given the time that would have been  spent with one’s friends in rebuilding  a home,  which could be an investment of relational capital, which then produces fruit in other areas of our lives, a capital which the hypertrophy of insurance today tends to attack and reduce.  In this way, our social capital (as well as financial) diminishes, increasing solitude, and the market steps in to offer new contracts for other unstable events (one day we will insure ourselves against not being respected enough, or loved enough by colleagues and family members!?), precipitating us in a social trap in which the effects are much more serious for the poorest who will suffer along with everyone the deterioration of civil patrimony, but who don’t have the possibility of insuring themselves financially.

What to do then?  I see two paths, one internal and the other external to the insurance world.  We should not forget that insurance came about as an instrument to protect those who are most fragile and vulnerable: at least, that was the original intent.  There is the need today to re-launch a new season of insurance ethics, in the wake of the Nobel laureate M. Yunus, who is now inventing insurance for the poorest, with premiums of only a few dollars.  Insurance societies should by nature be civil enterprises, that is, without intent to profit, simply because the contracts they sell have to do with a primary good, to protect against a bad and devastating vulnerability, and make it more liveable; a good that is fundamental to every person and it is not just to speculate on fundamental rights of people. This is not rocket science (science fiction?) (as one would say today of those leading huge insurance companies) but liberty and democracy.


The second pathway is more a cultural one than an ethical one:  we must react to that dangerous dream of wanting to build a common life ‘with relational risk 0’, because this dream can swiftly transform itself into a nightmare. Civil life is made of contracts (including those devised by insurance providers), but is primarily comprised of pacts (family, citizenship, and work), and a pact cannot avoid a certain vulnerability, since pacts are made of trust, and true trust is always open to risk and betrayal, otherwise it doesn’t do any good or serves too little.  But this dominant culture no longer understands what risk means and that suffering is inevitable in living alongside others ( as families well know), and so runs after a monstrous and naive dream of a world without vulnerability, an illusion which makes the individual truly vulnerable in the face  of monumental  suffering.

Only by welcoming and making space for the small vulnerabilities of life in common, will we be (as happens in homeopathic medicine) able to protect ourselves from the big vulnerabilities of our existence; if instead we refuse to welcome the small and ‘good’ vulnerabilities and wounds, we will be very defenceless in the face of the big vulnerabilities which devastate us once on the scene. The good insurance contracts are subsidiary to the pacts, the bad contracts substitute them, deteriorate them and in the long run destroy them. Today we will come out of this crisis with more pacts, with less bad contracts and more good ones, also in the insurance industry.

All of Luigino Bruni's comments on Avvenire can be found under Avvenire Editorial.

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