The white man’s burden

My title this morning may be misleading. But as ever, I leave gentle reader to judge.

It came from my days as the editor of a business magazine, in eastern Asia. I used it as a title once, over an article on the insurance industry, ghost-written by one of my staff, on behalf of an insurance maven who could not write to save his soul. The by-lined gentleman was in the habit of using this phrase — “the white man’s burden” — when speaking of the European re-insurance markets that took the beating, when fresh young Third World insurance companies made characteristically bad bets. Alas, he did not thank me for “billboarding” his little witticism.

The Wicked Paedia contends that insurance began with the Babylonians and ancient Chinese. But their argument is self-refuting. Babylonian merchants would pay an extra fee against a trade loan, to make the principal unrepayable if the shipment were lost. Fair enough, both parties knew what they were doing, and did their deal within sight of each other. The Chinese merchants had the wit to distribute big shipments among small vessels, to limit their losses should a vessel go down. This was a perfectly sensible tactic. So, arguably, were the arrangements of ancient Greek ship owners, who’d pool risks across a larger fleet.

But the idea of a specialized insurance syndicate is distinctly Western. As for the rest of modern banking and “capitalist” business practices, we must look back to the later Middle Ages, and the Italian city states (which the Dutch copied, much later). The Florentines invented double-entry bookkeeping, the Venetians new wrinkles in trade finance. The Genoese came up with the idea of the insurance contract, as a “thing.” God bless them for their cleverness, but damn them for the consequences.

In my unassailable view, typically rendered too subtly at the time, there was a deeper meaning to the phrase, not at all flattering to white people. We were, after all, the missionaries of insurance to places where it had not previously been considered. We were the innovative virtuosi in offloading individual exposure, through vast networks of unknowing gulls. In other words, we had become, from our Imperial days, the experts in covering for (our own) irresponsible behaviour. In time, we taught the whole world the principles of rapid economic growth, based on tricks of debt concealment, genteel privatization, compound leverage, and “limited liability,” fuelled by mercenary avarice.

The “burden” in question was on our own usurious souls. But that, too, was quickly spread about; for many found our sins to be attractive.

I have noticed over time that insurance executives (I’ve met a few, including one or two who were intelligent and candid) tend to be quite liberal in their political outlook — until it comes to actually paying out. Ditto all related risk-spreaders. They have, for centuries now, had the attitude enshrined in that “classic” of moral and intellectual depravity, Catcher in the Rye. It is to let people play like children, as a way of life, on the high and dangerous plateaux, while inserting some “catcher” into the game to prevent the least responsible from going over the cliff. The centuries pass. Today, instead of adults, we have Twisted Nanny State.

All insurance involves moral jeopardy. In guvmint it is taken to extremes that would quickly bankrupt any private insurer, but the jeopardy is there from the beginning, and pretending it isn’t involves lying to ourselves.

Gentle reader may not be surprised, to learn that I prefer the earlier mediaeval model, which was also that of the American pioneer. If someone has his assets blown away through ill-luck, and no fault of his own, we all pitch in to help him recover — on our own voluntary dime. If, however, it was his own darn fault, we split our sides laughing, then mock him as a warning to the young. We do not buy into crazy schemes to eliminate, or even to relax, personal responsibility. Instead we expect people to grow up.


A correspondent calls my attention to an episode of The Goon Show from 1957, entitled, “Insurance: The White Man’s Burden.” So that’s where Neville got it!