Monday, October 04, 2010

Libertarianism in Action

[I]n Obion County, Tennessee..., Gene Cranick’s home caught on fire. As the Cranicks fled their home, their neighbors alerted the county’s firefighters, who soon arrived at the scene. Yet when the firefighters arrived, they refused to put out the fire, saying that the family failed to pay the annual subscription fee to the fire department. Because the county’s fire services for rural residences is based on household subscription fees, the firefighters, fully equipped to help the Cranicks, stood by and watched as the home burned to the ground[.]
This, of course, is one of the examples liberals give (and Benjamin Franklin recognized) of why some services should be provided by government and paid for by the community. But I guess those folks in Tennessee prefer their libertarianism straight.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

guess they ate their pie first

not a charitable assumption

oh well

sociological implications sort of possibly intricate

phd thesis anyone?

Andy said...

This, of course, is one of the examples liberals give (and Benjamin Franklin recognized) of why some services should be provided by government and paid for by the community. But I guess those folks in Tennessee prefer their libertarianism straight.

I don't think that's quite right. The fire department in question is a city department funded by tax dollars. The house in question is outside the city limits in an unincorporated area, has no dedicated fire service and does not contribute tax dollars to the city fire department. The city offers protection for people outside the city limit (IOW, people who don't pay for it in their taxes) for a fee.

That arrangement isn't all that uncommon in unincorporated rural areas, though fire protection arrangements vary. What is unusual is for firefighters to refuse to fight a fire. The city didn't have to refuse to fight the fire and shame on them for doing so.

Libertarianism, at least as I understand it, doesn't envision government-run fire departments standing by and watching people's houses burn. They would argue (and on this point I would agree with them) that a volunteer or private department would have acted differently. There are actually a lot of areas in the country where people get fire protection service but don't pay for it and most of those areas are served by volunteer departments.

To me, this story is more about a vindictive and unethical city government than anything else.

Cheryl Rofer said...

Andy, I'll disagree with you.

Government provides services that benefit the entire community and that therefore may not be able to have costs apportioned in a simple way. If your neighbor's house burns down and sets the block on fire, it matters little whether you or he has paid for protection. That is the point that Franklin and others have made.

Was it correct for the local government(s) to charge for fire protection and refuse it to those who do not pay? This seems to be consistent with most libertarian arguments. I don't know what was in the minds of the members of the city government, and, I suspect, neither do you.

There are actually a lot of areas in the country where people get fire protection service but don't pay for it and most of those areas are served by volunteer departments.

We have to consider what "don't pay for it" means. If it means "don't pay a specific fee," then yes, of course. They pay for it in their taxes. Or they pay for it by buying cakes at the volunteer department's cake sale, or volunteer themselves. It's also possible that they do not pay taxes to the district that supports the volunteer departments through its taxes. But they may pay taxes to support functions that they themselves do not use.

That's a virtue and a liability of taxes. Because they are spread over a wide range of people, some get better "value for their money" than others. But that's a silly way to look at taxes. We support our communities with those taxes, and it's close to impossible to quantify the value to an individual of keeping your neighbors' homes from burning down. Or of having roads constructed and maintained. Or of educating the next generation.

So we support those things through taxes. And we need to be generous enough to support our community, rather than insisting on paying "our share" and no more.

Andy said...

Cheryl,

Thanks for your comments.

I don't disagree with Franklin's point, nor do I argue that fire protection isn't a communal responsibility - only that in rural and unincorporated areas providing such services is difficult and often complex.

We have to consider what "don't pay for it" means. If it means "don't pay a specific fee," then yes, of course. They pay for it in their taxes. Or they pay for it by buying cakes at the volunteer department's cake sale, or volunteer themselves. It's also possible that they do not pay taxes to the district that supports the volunteer departments through its taxes. But they may pay taxes to support functions that they themselves do not use.

There is certainly a lot of variability. I guess one can argue that people receiving protection from a volunteer fire department funded primarily through donations and federal grants is paying taxes for fire service, but that's pretty indirect. There is a distinction, however, such as in this case, between residents of a city, who pay municipal taxes that specifically fund the municipal fire department, and residents outside the city who do not pay those municipal taxes but still receive fire protection. In some cases fire departments provide the protections because it's the ethical thing to do or due to longstanding tradition, in other cases they charge fees and in still other cases there are contractual agreements between county and municipal government. That latter case is becoming more common.

Actually, I just ran across this from the fire department chief.

Whatever the case though, I think it's outrageous that firefighters would arrive on the scene and do nothing. That's just my opinion of course.

helmut said...

I guess I tend to take this case as less a lesson about one type of government or another. This kind of case. however, does underscore the very real risk of privatizing public services and public goods. Even philosophical libertarians like Nozick ran into this sort of problem constantly. Many public goods society has reason to value can only be provided publicly.

What the case is really about is the unconscionable act of those particular firemen and those who would run to their justification. That is moral upside-down land and those supposed firefighters ought to be run out of town. Should I walk past a child being beaten by bullies because no one paid me to stop and help? People who think in these terms have their heads up their asses, to use a technical philosophical expression.

Andy said...

helmut,

Except in this case services are not privatized - the fire department is a government fire department. There's no privatization here at all since the fee arrangement was the product of a negotiation between the county government and the city government.

IMO this case is actually a Frankenstein where there is taxpayer funded government monopoly acting as if it were a private business. The worst of both worlds if you will. Under a government system county tax revenue would be used to either contract for fire protection services or build their own capability. Under a libertarian market system there would be no government monopoly and private firms would fill the void. Although I prefer a government system for fire protection, I think either would have worked better than what was in place here.