A Burning Question
It would be neither uninteresting nor unprofitable for our public teachers of morality and religion to discuss the question as to whether colonial morality is inferior to that of England; not so much with relation to the lower forms of vice, but more particularly with regard to general honesty and commercial probity. An announcement in a recent English paper throws a rather lurid light upon one phase of the question, and it is not unworthy of consideration when the incendiary “ rat ” is so busy anti energetic. In the paper referred to, an insurance company which has now been in existence more than eighty years, announces that “ all those who have made seven annual payments, and have had no claim for fire, are informed that the bonus returns are more than sufficient to meet the premiums due midsummer quarter, and that, consequently, they have no premium to pay for the renewal of their policies. This return system does not extend to farming stock and hazardous insurances, fhe rates charged are the same as those quoted by other offices giving no return.” I refrain from giving the name of the company. as to do so might arouse a suspicion that I desired to advertise it in an indirect though very apparent manner. It may be stated, however, that it is not doing business here, and has no colonial agencies. The rate charged for first-class risks is is. 6d. per j£too. Here the rate is 15s. per £ too for the same class of risks. Now, apart from the circumstance that the insurers as well as the shareholders participate in the profits of the company by having their premiums from time to time remitted, there are here some remarkable facts for consideration. In England this company has had a prosperous existence for more than eighty years ; it charges a merely nominal premium of is. 6d. per ^100, yet it is enabled not only to give a satisfactory return to the shareholders, but to relieve the insurers frequently from the payment of their premiums. Here the premium charged is exactly tenfold, and no insurers have yet been relieved from payment. Not only so, but of late years insurance companies doing business here have been actually losing money instead of making it. How is this? The answer seems simple enough. Fires are proportionately to the number of buildings far more frequent here than in England. Rut this is really only half an answer. The real question is, why are fires more frequent here? There is but one reply to the query, and it is a most painful one. No person who has read the accounts of the fires which have occurred here during the last few years can, I think, fail to have been convinced that a very large proportion of them have been the result of deliberate incendiarism.
It is absurd to say that fires are more prevalent here because of the greater number of wooden buildings. Fire is no more likely to originate in a wooden building than in a brick one, unless as in many country settlers’ houses, the chimneys are also wooden. But it is a significant fact that very few of the latter are destroyed by fire, despite the wooden chimneys. The majority of them are not insured. Of course, when a fire does occur in a wooden building, its progress is more rapid, the destruction is greater and more complete than in a brick building. and it is more difficult to subdue. But, even assuming that fires, from some mysterious cause, do originate more readily in a wooden structure than in a brick one, yet still the fires occurring in the latter are abnormally numerous. There seems to be no reasonable room for doubt that there is rapidly spreading in the community a species of morality regarding incendiarism similar to the Arabian code respecting honesty. The crime consists in being found out. It is disgraceful only to be detected. It is immoral only to blunder. The man who has a “successful” fire is considered not only fortunate, but clever. He who achieves two or more “successes” is a genius. The insurance companies are regarded as legitimate prey, to be plundered without compunction, to be defrauded without remorse. It may be true—it probably is—that the insurance companies have, by over-insuring and by lax inspection, to some extent developed and encouraged the incendiary spirit. “ Opportunity makes the thief” is an old proverb, but a fallacious one. Opportunity never yet made a thief of a man imbued with the true principal of honesty. There must be a pre-existent criminal mind before there can be any response to the temptations which opportunity presents. It follows, therefore, that though the insurance companies are somewhat to blame, yet they are certainly not responsible for the existence of the incendiary spirit that is now rampant. Even with respect to men, concerning whose guilt as incendiaries there is no moral doubt, the general sentiment is almost as much one of admiration for their cleverness in eluding detection as of condemnation for their crime. While this sentiment prevails incendiarism will flourish and insurance companies fail, unless the latter adopt a different system in conducting their business. But whatever measures the companies may adopt, the cause which is producing such disastrous results will still exist. How is the standard of morality to be raised ? This is the problem which requires solution, and it is one with which the insurance companies have nothing to do. They may contrive to diminish fires, but the spirit of dishonesty will be as active as ever until the fountain of public morality can by some means be purified.— 7’he Review.