Libertarian History/Philosophy

Limits-of-Libertarianism Hypothetical Brought to Life in Tennessee


From Obion County, Tennessee, a made-to-order sample case for Political Philosophy 101 profs around the country to borrow for their lesson on libertarianism:

The county does not have its own fire department, and instead relies on the fire protection services of the nearby City of Fulton. But there's a catch: The City of Fulton does not automatically serve residents of the county. If Obion County residents want to be protected by the City of Fulton Fire Department, they need to pay a $75 fee to the City. 

Obion County resident Gene Cranick decided not to pay the $75 fee, and then he set a fire in his backyard in two large barrels. The fire began to spread, and he called 911. The 911 operator told him that because he hadn't paid the fee, the fire department would not respond. Cranick's wife told the 911 operator that she would be willing to pay "whatever the cost" to hire the Fire Department to put out the fire, but was told that this was not an option. The Fire Department did not come out until the fire spread to a neighbor's yard — the neighbor had paid the fee — and the firemen put out the neighbor's fire but not Cranick's.

The fallout and some lively discussion over at Volokh, or watch the video here:

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  1. That fire department is still run by a government. That pretty much blows up the supposed case against libertarianism here.

  2. Make people pay for services they want to use? WHY I NEVER! Maybe next time the fucking idiot should pay his bills, and/or, not start a reckless fire in two barrels in his unprotected backyard.

    1. Am I to believe that a man who opted out of a service because he was unwilling to pay $75 a year has somehow been wronged?

  3. What good is being able to opt out of government firefighting when there’s no private firefighting competing?

  4. Did he have fire insurance on his house? If he did, I bet his insurance company lawyers are hard at work reviewing their policy language.

    1. Exactly. The insurance company is apparently on the hook for the loss. My guess is that insurance companies are now going to want to change their contracts to include a requirement that policy holders pay for a fire-fighting service if it’s not otherwise provided. It would work the same way that a mortgage contract works, where the lender requires the borrower to maintain a homeowners insurance policy. The insurance company could even set up an escrow account on behalf of the homeowner to make sure the fee is paid.

      So the marketplace will work this out in about a second, assuming the state insurance board approves such a change and the mayor and the town hold firm on this policy.

      1. According to reports, he does have home insurance with Farm Bureau. The adjuster told a reporter that while they COULD legally treat his claim differently because of his failure to pay the subscription fee, they had chosen not to do so.

  5. This is so infuriating. They put too much value in money and that freaking policy over the safety and comfort of the unfortunate family. Really disappointing to know how their governing system works.

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  6. This is so infuriating. They put too much value in money and that freaking policy over the safety and comfort of the unfortunate family. Really disappointing to know how their governing system works.

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  7. So, wait. Did I understand this correctly? Did he refuse to pay a measly $75 fee for fire protection service, and then intentionally start a fire, on his own property?

    Talk about a blithering idiot!

    How much does he think it would have cost him in taxes if his district had a fire department?

    What a maroon!

    1. Apparently the county did consider increasing property taxes to extended firefighting to all county residents. In order to pay for this, there would have been a 0.13% increase in property taxes. It seems that the voters preferred the status quo.


          clearer source of 0.13%

  8. Fire service is always a priority for government. Usually there are few objections about local governments charging taxes to provide for fire protection which is a function of local government.
    This is a sad situation where a home owner did not buy fire protection in advance and then his home burned without protection. Many in my Mom’s family have lived in Obion County and close to South Fulton. This has long been the situation in numerous counties. Usually it is anti-military people complaining that we should not have a strong national defense and should not support it financially. What will happen if the US has a weak defense and a strong aggressor takes us over? We then will be too late to say we should have supported the military- (this does not prevent prudent oversight). The local people decided that you had to support the fire protectors if you want to use them. Usually our local governments provide this service as a part of our local taxes. Hopefully the local government will change its policy but the people will have to pay. Putting our fires is an expensive service. There is nothing libertarian about not providing the service – if we are going to have a government, we ought to put our priorities high enough to take care of the basics before we waste trillions of dollars on services that do nothing to make our people secure in their own homes. That has been caused by liberals seeing other things as more important instead of providing personal security. Why would a fire insurance company protect someone who did not have this service when it was available. If they did, then the house would still have burnt but the people’s premiums would increase. Every way someone is going to pay. Perhaps in this situation, the best opportunity would be to get a judgment against the one who could not control the fire in the first place. He should be the one to lose his property instead of this poor family. Tough world. Always make sure you have a fire truck ready in advance of need – not during or after.

  9. You know what would have been beautiful?

    “We’ll put out the fire when we have word that the escrow account has closed…”

  10. Or even more simple, “We save it, the house is ours. You can collect your things when it’s out.”

  11. Wow. Libertarians crow over man’s house burning down because he didn’t follow the rules.

    I truly hope you guys get to live in the world you want (as long as I don’t have to).

    1. It was still government fire coverage. The real lesson here is that they let it burn rather than extort them for all they were worth. The real interest is the whole lifeboat scenario. If you were paying attention, a few years back in Los Angeles, the private firefighters saved non-paying households just for fun.

  12. Isn’t there a middle ground here? I understand the family didn’t pay in advance for the service and they should have, but couldn’t the fire department have put the fire out and then changed the family. Not saying the charge should be the $75 but something like say $500 or whatever the total cost to the department was plus extra charges for not being signed up. Wouldn’t this be a better and more humane option then to just standing there and watch the home burn?

    1. According to one person who claimed to be a local, that was the plan ($75 annual subscription or $500 fee based service) for years, but the city changed the policy because they had too much difficulty collecting the fee from non-subscribers whose homes were saved.

  13. I have a house in Arizona that was in the Rural/Metro zone & I paid my $$ every year. They’re a for profit company, but I remember reading that they would put out fires for several thousand if you hadn’t paid the fee.

  14. Interestingly, this wasn’t the first time he’d had a fire after neglecting to pay the subscription Three years ago, the same thing happened, except that in the earlier instance the fire department allowed him to pay the day after the fire.


      features story of fire from three years ago

  15. The fire started in a burn barrel by a shed outside Paulette and Gene Cranick’s home. They weren’t there, only their 21-year-old grandson, Lance, who also lives there. He set the fire to burn some garbage and then went inside for a quick shower.

    Mr. LANCE CRANICK: When I got out of the shower, I heard kind of like a popping noise. I looked out the kitchen window and the shed here was already pretty much engulfed in flames. You know, there really wasn’t no saving it. But the corner of the house wasnt on fire at the time. And I ran out, you know, kind of started spraying, you know, the water hose and I called 911.


      source of ‘shower’ bit

  16. The policy has been in place since 1990. Reminders are mailed out, and those who haven’t subscribed are also contacted via phone.

    “People always think they will never be in a situation where they will need rural fire protection, but City of South Fulton personnel actually go above and beyond in trying to offer the service. He said the city mails out notices to customers in the specified rural coverage area, with coverage running from July 1 of one year to July 1 the next year. At the end of the enrollment month of July, the city goes a step further and makes phone calls to rural residents who have not responded to the mail-out. “These folks were called and notified,” Vowell said. “I want to make sure everybody has the opportunity to get it and be aware it’s available. It’s been there for 20 years, but it’s very important to follow up.”

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