Obion County Blues
I’ve enjoyed both of Mark’s posts (part one and part two) on the Obion Fire Controversy a great deal. He’s absolutely correct to heap scorn on the various misinformation campaigns out there regarding this particular fire. One very important fact to consider in this whole mess is that Gene Cranick, the resident in question, simply forgot to pay the fee:
"I just forgot to pay my $75," Cranick told ABC News. "I did it last year, the year before. … It slipped my mind."
So it’s really not a case of anyone’s inability to pay – it’s a case of Cranick’s inability to remember – a problem which, in a pay-to-spray system, might be more intractable than people simply being short on cash.
As a rather forgetful person myself, I question any system which counts on someone remembering to pay in order to gain access to basic services such as police and fire protection. This is why I would prefer a tax to provide fire services to a pay-to-spray program. The other major problem with pay-to-spray is collateral damage. A home not protected by fire insurance could quite easily lead to a fire that spreads beyond that home or to loss of life. A tax is safer for everyone, even if there are some unpleasant side-effects to taxation.
(And a tax avoids the moral conundrum these fire fighters faced as well. They may have been well within their legal rights to let the sucker burn, but I find the action morally reprehensible in the same way that turning away uninsured patients from emergency rooms was reprehensible before that practice was made illegal.)
Why not impose a much lower tax which creates a county fire fund? Whenever city fire services are used, the county would draw from this fund to reimburse the city. This would be much cheaper than staffing a county fire department, and it would take care of the free-rider problem without placing an undue burden on county taxpayers and an undue moral burden on city fire fighters.
A lot of commenters on the left have used this instance as an example of libertarian policies gone bad – to paint what they see as a Randian vision of America. And they have a point, but not quite in the way most of them think. Many libertarians and conservatives are right to point out that, no matter how Randian this looks on the face of things, this was nevertheless a government policy, a government decision. This was the solution proposed by the local government and enforced by said government. In Mark’s first post he wrote:
Indeed, Think Progress’ cherry-picked facts would tell us to never mind that this kind of situation would be extremely rare even in a world where all fire services were fee-based for the simple reason that no lender would ever provide a loan without a guarantee, funded by an escrow account, that the homeowner would pay for fire coverage, and no homeowners’ insurer would sign off on a policy without fire service unless it required the homeowner to pay a hugely inflated premium whose inflation would be in excess of the fire service fee. So, for this sort of scenario to play out, you need a home that is owned free and clear of any loans and that is either uninsured or that is insured for a huge premium.
Obion County is a really good example of how difficult it is to move in a more libertarianish direction in practical terms. Mark is correct – in a free-market, the private insurance and lending system would adapt to protect itself, making sure that basically everyone had fire protection. There would probably be gaps, but for the most part I think you’d find that pretty much everyone was paying their fees. There would be no state mandate, but there would still be a mandate: in order to get a loan or to get insurance you’d need to prove that you had fire protection.
The problem is getting from here to there (if that’s the direction we’d like to go). The system as a whole hasn’t operated this way before. Fire protection is traditionally a government-provided service. Private lenders and insurers in most places don’t ask whether you’ve purchased fire services. And so you have this local fire department put in place a policy that simply doesn’t fit with the rest of the system, with the way things are done in most places, and the result is, unsurprisingly, it doesn’t work very well. (I’m not sure what sort of county services the Cranick’s will now require, for instance, but I’m sure they’ll be costly to everyone involved.)
This problem of implementation is probably my number one critique of libertarianism. When I read something by Arnold Kling, for instance, about getting out from under the public monopolies – getting to choose your own providers of basically every public service you can think of from schools to fire protection to snow removal to regulatory systems – I think: Sure, in a perfect world or starting from scratch this might work out okay. But in this world, I see these policies hurting the Have-Nots and benefiting the Haves, because the implementation of these policies is fraught with trouble that the Haves have trouble perceiving. If regulation is prone to capture, then the stripping away of public services in the hopes of replacing them with a private, competitive market is fraught with unintended inequities and social cracks.
So when people try, somewhat blindly, to get from here to there they might take shortcuts, they might craft a policy based too much on ideology rather than pragmatism, which is why I initially called this fire policy, “ideology taken to the brink of stupidity and then shoved headfirst into the roiling pit.” I may be wrong in that assessment of this particular program. Maybe this really was a last-ditch effort to curtail a problem with free-riders and to save much needed money. But it isn’t a very smart way to deal with the problem because when it all comes down, a fire department should put out the fire regardless. They should take off their city badges and call themselves volunteers if they have to. They should take the guy’s money when it’s offered. Whatever the case, whatever the problem, you put the damn fire out first. And that’s the fundamental catch-22 with this sort of policy, and reason enough to not try it in the first place.