Obion County Blues


Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

Related Post Roulette

19 Responses

  1. “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.”

    I would prefer to use a few well-placed billboards and tasteful direct mail to remind people to pay their fees, with personal phone calls for the especially forgetful people.Report

  2. Avatar Aaron says:

    Other than its ideological rigor, is there really any advantage to this system over simply assessing everyone a tax to pay for a fire department? Is there any real downside to the state supplying fire-fighting services? This really does seem like taking an ideological position (“the government should be as small as possible”) and taking it to its logical (and absurd) end.

    I dunno, it seems to me like we should be trying to figure out what the best way to provide fire services. Unless you’re going to become a latter-day Crassus, it seems like this system possesses the worst of all possible solutions.Report

  3. “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.”

    No one – at least not anyone here – disputes that the FD had an obligation to put the fire out regardless. What is missing here is that the longstanding practice under this policy was, in fact, to put the fire out and bill the person later. In other words, the FD’s actions were an arbitrary exception rather than the rule. Indeed, they were particularly arbitrary in this case, because it seems quite likely that their actions had purely political motives. So to blame the policy for something that appears to have been the result of an organization protesting the policy (and indeed deviating from longstanding practices under that policy) is, well, bizarre.

    Look, none of this is to say that this is a terribly good way of handling fire service – I suspect it’s not, and believe it or not, most libertarians would likely agree with me. But the fact is that firefighters responding to the scene and then simply refusing to do anything once at the scene is not a natural outcome of the policy, however flawed it may be in other ways (indeed, I’m pretty sure that what the fire department did here is actionable). Moreover, while we may all have our inclinations and suspicions, the fact is that no one who lives outside Obion County, Tennessee has the faintest qualification to adequately judge the fire protection policies of that County (particularly given its rural nature and its particular balance of incorporated municipalities and unincorporated areas out of town), and the tradeoffs involved in manufacturing those policies. There’s not even anything in evidence that this policy was implemented due primarily to a libertarian or conservative ideology. I suppose one could lay the blame on resistance to taxation (although that, too, would be a bit overly speculative), but resistance to taxation has a much longer history than either conservatism or libertarianism. No one wants to pay higher taxes, and everyone wants to have better services – the question is how to strike the balance in a given situation, and the given situation in Obion County, Tennessee is going to be vastly different than the situation in Washington, DC. Any honest evaluation of policies peculiar to Obion County, Tennessee requires, at a bare minimum, an acknowledgement of those peculiarities.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Mark Thompson says:

      @Mark Thompson,

      At the very least, the rule of law demands that agents of the state act according to the procedures they have announced beforehand. In the absence of a formal announcement, standard practices and precedents should rule.

      The more I think about the whole case, the more that this seems to be the fundamental problem. Any other considerations are second-order at best. The fire department — that is, agents of the state — behaved arbitrarily. And atrociously, at that.

      But then I hear, incredibly, that the real problem is the market. And any disagreement — any protest that the market wasn’t to blame — gets me labeled as a radical ideologue. Unbelievable.

      Guys, the very first thing I stand for is the rule of law — the rule that says state agents have to behave according to previously announced procedures. After that’s established, we can talk about what makes for a good or a bad law, or what we do when laws seem necessary but still produce bad results, or what happens when two laws contradict each other. But none of this has thing to do with the market.Report

      • @Jason Kuznicki, I don’t know why it took me until your comment here to put my finger on it, but I could have saved myself a lot of words by just saying “rule of law” and being done with it.

        Then again, according to the NY Times, “rule of law” has a completely different meaning when it is uttered by a libertarian (in which case, says the Times, “rule of law” means an unwritten protection of arbitrary actions), so it was probably necessary for me to expend a few thousand words explaining the concept.Report

    • @Mark Thompson,

      “Moreover, while we may all have our inclinations and suspicions, the fact is that no one who lives outside Obion County, Tennessee has the faintest qualification to adequately judge the fire protection policies of that County (particularly given its rural nature and its particular balance of incorporated municipalities and unincorporated areas out of town), and the tradeoffs involved in manufacturing those policies. There’s not even anything in evidence that this policy was implemented due primarily to a libertarian or conservative ideology. “

      Sadly, it’s unremarkable that in all the bloggery about this, the above is buried in the comments of a late to the game post.

      What happened to this guy’s house is terrible, especially if it’s because he forgot to pay. When this happens to us here at Casa Comstock, we call it the stupid tax, but I don’t feel as glib about losing a house as I do over $25 late fee.

      Mortgage holders handle this by having an escrow for taxes and insurance. Our health insurance plan does the same thing, but only 30 days out instead of six months. Maybe this has been discussed in Obion Country, or if it hasn’t, maybe it will be.

      But the bigger point stands. Fire protection is best understood locally.Report

  4. Avatar Jonathan Dursi says:

    “The system as a whole hasn’t operated this way before. Fire protection is traditionally a government-provided service.”

    What? Bullshit. ; you can still see the old plaques signifying paid-up private insurance on historic buildings in Boston & Philly for sure, presumably other cities in the US.

    The system was replaced by municipal FDs over time because it’s just a better system, particularly in cities. In densly packed urban environments, the externalities are just too large — it really, *really* matters to you if your neighbours fire will be put out or not.Report

  5. Avatar rj says:

    What bothers me about insurance companies asking more and more of policyholders in a libertarian fire protection world is the same thing that bothers a lot of libertarians about government-run healthcare.

    As the critique goes, when the government pays healthcare bills, it will start demanding that people do things to keep those bills down. The result is more and more nanny state regulations on smoking, trans fats, salt, etc.

    If the mechanism by which we get fire coverage (and perhaps a lot more) paid for is by insurance companies. I’m more familiar with my auto policy, so I know that they give me discounts based on my car’s safety features and where I live. There’s a huge difference in premiums between what I pay to be 29 in a good neighborhood with a safe car and what an 18-year-old in a high car theft neighborhood pays for his own policies. It makes total economic sense to insurers, but it’s highly, highly regressive.

    So what might we get if fire coverage were an insurance coverage and not a universal service?

    1) Generally higher premiums for people in older houses or more remote areas. These people are often the least able to pay. In fact, many don’t have comprehensive insurance.

    2) An ever-increasing series of expensive mandates from insurance companies as a prerequisite for coverage. Unlike government nanny stating, it’s a lot harder to sue to get these mandates struck down or vote for someone else. If you don’t like it, you can go without coverage (unless it’s a mandate) or find another insurer (if it’s not a local oligopoly or if insurers didn’t offer real options).

    3) Externalities are only solved if you have universal coverage. Since fire coverage premiums would probably be regressive, more people will get thrown out of their houses. If it’s not universal, we still have the Galt’s Gulch FD lecturing a citizen about the free rider problem while his house burns.

    None of these problems would come out of nowhere; we live with a lot of them right in the insurance realm now. But let’s not call it freedom when it’s just a transfer of regulatory power from a democratic institution to a private entity.Report

    • Avatar Lyle in reply to rj says:

      @rj, Although not on the fire side insurance does have mandates on building and rebuilding along the coasts subject to hurricanes. If you don’t meet the codes no insurance.
      Likley the insurance company will charge a rate that assumes no fire protection (it would be interesting to see how the policy was rated) and give a discount if you pay. They have such rates because there are folks who live so far out in the country that effectivly they have n0 fire protection. (45 min journey by fire vehicles to get there)Report

      • Avatar Douglas2 in reply to Lyle says:

        Fire departments are rated with ISO ratings from 10 (basically no fire department within range) to 1 (as good as it can get in hydrants, equipment, personnel, and training).
        Many insurers will scale the policy depending upon the ISO rating and distance from the fire station.
        South Fulton TN FD is ISO5 within their jurisdiction, but sorely lacking water capacity outside it.
        The Fire insuurer in this case is Farmers, who have a written policy of only covering a proportion of the claim if the fire subscription is not paid, but according to the local agent this is not enforced.Report

  6. Avatar RTod says:

    Not knowing the exact specs of the particular fire in question, this may not be applicable. But it certainly is to the larger tax vs. voluntary subscription for fire department services conversation:

    Property insurance companies actually started out in the US, and they were not financial instruments as much as subscription fire services. (In our office, we have a few antique metal plaques that were affixed to buildings that were “insured,” so that the fire department knew whether or not to help put out the fire.)

    The transition from subscription/insurance shifted to taxed and mandated services in the 19th century, but it despite what current libertarians might think, it wasn’t due to a nanny state mentality, or people feeling sorry for the poor, or anything like that. In fact, it was pushed through universally, throughout the country, by the upper classes who already had subscriptions, and it was pushed through for one basic reason:

    Fire poses a threat to life and property to the entire community, whether or not it is their building where the fire started. When the fire department comes to put out, say, a house fire of someone who doesn’t pay taxes it isn’t because they feel sorry for that person. It’s because they don’t want all the other fucking houses on the street to burn down.

    This is one of those cases where the golden idea of getting the government off our backs leads to unthinkingly floating really, really bad policy ideas.Report

    • Avatar Lyle in reply to RTod says:

      As you point out the people in municipalities were able to create fire departments. The unincorporated areas may or may not have been able to depending on the state in question. So we never got to universal fire protection merely to incorporated areas and some unincorporated area fire protection.Report

    • Avatar Douglas2 in reply to RTod says:

      “Research shows that it is only in the 20th century when the idea first appears that a volunteer fire company would not fight a fire if there were no fire mark”

  7. Avatar Simon K says:

    I sympathise, being an extremely forgetful person myself. It would really to have my house burn down because I forgot something. But you learn how to work with your own tendencies – I pay everything I can through ACH debits, bills I can’t pay that way I pay the minute I get them or leave where I’ll constantly be reminded of them (which my wife hates, but understands once I explained the method behind it), things that aren’t billed I either automate myself or send myself bills for by one mechanism or another.Report

  8. Avatar Douglas2 says:

    It is demonstrably not the case that it was standard practice for this fire department to report to non-subscribers fires and put them out. There have been well reported cases in recent years of contained fires being allowed to burn out, resulting in the loss of homes.Report