Reciprocity, Subsidiarity and Solidarity

Systems of social security are legitimized by various ideas; these ideas also determine the organizational forms adopted. Reciprocity, subsidiarity and solidarity are three of these ideas.


Mutual aid societies emerged in the early part of the 19th century in various then-industrializing countries. They rested on the solidarity felt either between those who worked in a larger company, or between the members of a union, or between the employees in a particular economic branch in a particular region. Reciprocity consisted in the mutual aid given, under certain circumstances, by members of the respective community or Gemeinschaft. This could happen when – due to accident, illness, or unemployment – an individual was in financial need or distress. Personal contact between members allowed for control, and prevented benefits from being inappropriately claimed. Mutual aid societies were financed by member contributions, donations from employers, and through government subsidies. By the end of the 19th century, such societies increasingly made use of actuarial calculations to set premium and benefit levels. In the course of the 20th century, such societies were to a large extent replaced by governmental social insurance schemes.


In general terms, subsidiarity means that a higher instance should only concern itself with a problem when the subordinate instance is incapable of doing so. As a guiding principle in social welfare contexts, subsidiarity is understood to mean that whenever possible, a service should be provided by the family, an association, a community, or a canton. Only as a last resort should the national government be called upon. Around 1900, subsidiarity was advocated primarily by the Catholic cantons and the CVP, the Christian Democratic Party; they opposed the introduction of government social welfare institutions. With the expansion of the social welfare state during the booming postwar years, this position came to be promoted primarily by the SVP, the Swiss People’s Party and by the FDP, the Liberal party.


In the context of social security, solidarity refers to the sense of connection between members of solidary communities, expressed through ideological or material support. Organizational forms of such support can be found in civil society (benefit or benevolent societies, aid organizations) or in state organizations (social insurance, social assistance). Solidary communities vary considerably in size, ranging from a family unit to the entire population. In between, they could be at-risk groups such as the workers in a single firm, or all employees, or all those covered by a branch of a social insurance scheme. Unions and left-wing political parties have traditionally argued for solidarity among workers or employees. In the early phase, it was liberals in the FDP who argued for the introduction of social insurance schemes based on the solidarity between generations and population segments. The idea was to balance the risks between groups in society in a solidary manner. In addition to the unions and the FDP, the SP and CVP parties also came to support social insurance in the course of the 20th century. Since the 1990s, critique of the expansion of social insurance schemes has come primarily from the SVP and FDP.

Literatur / Bibliographie / Bibliografia / References: Schumacher, Beatrice (2010), Freiwillig verpflichtet: gemeinnütziges Denken und Handeln in der Schweiz seit 1800, Zürich.