Let it Burn or Not? Fulton Fire Department Follow-up: Updated with Mangu-Ward Video!


Here's a hot story—so hot, in fact, that when Reason's own Katherine Mangu-Ward blogged it on October 4, relatively few commenters could handle it—that supposedly demonstrates the uselessness of libertarian principles in "the real world" (and by real world, I mean strange examples that may or may not be representative of how things work 99.9 percent of the time):

Residents of rural Olbion County, Tennessee must contract indivdiually with nearby Fulton city for fire protection. The annual fee is $75. An Olbion County resident failed to pay the fee (he says he simply forgot and had paid the fee for the previous two years) and his house caught on fire after his grandson lit trash near the building. The owner called 911 and offered to pay the fee and, later at the site of the fire, offered to pay the fire department whatever it would take to save his home. The firemen—part of a municipal force—refused because of rules preventing such action. They were on hand to protect the house of a neighbor who was up to date in terms of fees.

So, what do you think, gentle readers? Does this story, showcased by Dramatic Olbermann as an instance of the grim corporate outsourcing that awaits us all now that George W. Bush is firmly ensconced in his third term as permanent God-Emperor of Dune, demonstrate that contractual service provision is inhumane and awful? And that this story is a preview of the Tea Party uber alles? In this, the Big O is joined by a seemingly endless stream of commentators who note that Ayn Rand should stuff this fire in her pipe and smoke it, be-yatch!

For some counter-perspective, here is Iain Murray of the Competitive Enterprise Institute writing in the Washington Examiner:

Histories of firefighting in both America and England (where the practice of insurance companies fighting fires began) show that [letting unisured houses burn] never happened. Indeed, the reason insurance companies began to get out of the fire fighting business and passed the hot potato to municipalities was precisely because of the free rider problem – their fire brigades were routinely putting out fires in buildings that held no policy with the company….

It is hard to see a fire brigade employed by a private insurance company simply sitting by and letting a house burn to the ground for the sake of an unpaid $75 fee. If it had, the company would have been accused of greed. What other word should we use to describe the motivation of a municipality in such circumstances?

And here's National Review's Kevin D. Williamson, taking a hard line:

Until a few years ago, [Fulton's fire department] would not respond to any fires outside of the city limits — which is to say, the city limited its jurisdiction to the city itself, and to city taxpayers. A reasonable position. Then, a few years ago, a fire broke out in a rural area that was not covered by the city fire department, and the city authorities felt bad about not being able to do anything to help. So they began to offer an opt-in service, for the very reasonable price of $75 a year. Which is to say: They greatly expanded the range of services they offer. The rural homeowners were, collectively, better off, rather than worse off. Before the opt-in program, they had no access to a fire department. Now they do.

And, for their trouble, the South Fulton fire department is being treated as though it has done something wrong, rather than having gone out of its way to make services available to people who did not have them before. The world is full of jerks, freeloaders, and ingrates — and the problems they create for themselves are their own.

There are any number of variations on the positions stated above. Some folks have wondered what the fire department's response would/should have been if a person was trapped in the building. In a way, Murray's point suggests that if free-riding in endemic to these sorts of situations, emergency service fees should be levied without regard for the consent of the governed—though there remains a real question of who is the governed in an unincorporated area.

Then again, the reason why old-time private fire companies put out fires wherever they found (contra Gangs of New York) was because fires spread rapidly in 19th century cities. That wasn't the case here and one assumes the owner of the house has homeowners insurance. If he doesn't, should the city or taxpayers or an insurance company simply reimburse him for his loss because, well, that would be the kind thing to do? Isn't that the extension of the idea that the fire company (again, a municipal crew, not an evil corporationf that burns down orphanages for fun and profit) should have put the fire out despite a lack of any clear legal or contractual obligation to do so?

Chew on all that, vicarious policy pyromaniacs, and then cut to the next iteration of the argument, courtesy of Dr. Paul Krugman, who immediately puts the story in a dopey health-care context:

This is essentially the same as denying someone essential medical care because he doesn't have insurance. So the question is, do you want to live in the kind of society in which this happens?

National Review's Dan Foster, a critic of the Fulton FD's lack of action, responds:

No. Krugman would have been correct if he'd said "This is essentially the same as an insurance company refusing to pay for someone's essential medical care because that person never bought insurance in the first place." And I don't mind living in that kind of society at all.

Which begs the question who does pay in the hypothetical medical care situation above. If the patient doesn't have insurance and can't pay, his costs are spread to other (paying) patients, or to charities or to taxpayers eventually. Is any of that just? Moral? If it's charity paying, certainly so. If it's other folks, there's a lot more to debate.

Whatever. This much seems certain: There is very little denial of "essential medical care" in the United States if we're talking about emergency room visits and the like. The real question in this variation is the definition of essential. Does it mean basic medical care (of the sort provided by any number of free and low-cost programs) or does it mean the level of care one presumes a Nobel laureate, tenured professor, and NYT columnist gets? I know very few people—even libertarians—who are against the provision of free and reduced-price medical care (the libs will rightly suggest that philanthropy rather than state bureaucracy is more cost-effective and efficient). The real question comes as you add more and more service on to a system.

Which might just take us back to the starting point of this post: Should the Fulton FD done anything differently? And if so, what?

Last night, Reason's Katherine Mangu-Ward debated the issues on RT's Alyona Show with Mike Elk of the lefty pub In These Times, who immediately accuses Mangu-Ward of wanting to enact a pro-corporate deregulatory agenda that would end in mass death and neglect of the poort. Mangu-Ward also points out that the family in question had failed to pay its fee three years ago and had a chimney fire put out by the same FD.