Free Markets, Free People

Libby Spencer


About that burned down house — let’s set the record straight

Lots of libs claiming, as Libby Spencer has, that the firefighters who watched a man’s house burn down because he hadn’t paid his fee is representative of the reality of a "conservative/glibertarian free market utopia" (her words, not mine) that we libertarians talk about.

As it turns out, it is nothing of the sort.

It turns out, though, that the fire department in Tennessee was not a private for-profit fire department. It was a government-run fire department. You read that right: the fire department that refused to show up and refused to name a price at which it would show up was run by the government of South Fulton.

Yes, that’s right, it was a government run fire department.  We libertarians are always proposing government do more, aren’t we?  To Spencer’s credit she mentions that factoid a little further on in her post . But she’s already poisoned the well by then. You’re left to think this is what a "for profit" or "subscription", or to use the words the left usually spits out when saying them, "free market" form of fire service might look like.

Not really.

As David Henderson points out, in the "free market" version, it is very likely the fire service would show up and charge you appropriately:

You would think at some price, the fire department would show up. After all, a private for-profit fire company could make some good money doing so and, by charging high enough, could limit the incentive for people not to pay in advance for protection.

Standing by is not logical for a company which gains its earnings by doing that sort of work and, at the time of the fire, it’s a seller’s market isn’t it?  But you don’t get paid unless you put the fire out. 

And there are examples of exactly what we’re talking about. Henderson links to one that provides services in rural Arizona.  Here’s a portion of what it says under “services”:

Service Models:

There are four different models Rural/ Metro Fire uses to provide fire protection services. Descriptions are listed below. If you are unsure which service model Rural/ Metro Fire uses to protect your home or property, please call customer service so that we can let you know.

Fire Service Accounts – In select unincorporated county areas where taxes do not pay for a Fire Department, residents are responsible for setting up an account directly with Rural/ Metro Fire Department to provide fire protection services. Annual fees are based on the square footage of the enclosed property. For more information on a Fire Services Account call your area’s customer service department.

Now you have a choice here, don’t you? Sign up and be protected or blow it off and take your chances. And while I’m not here to defend a government run fire department in Tennessee, it’s the same choice the man there had.  He chose to blow it off and paid the consequences for his decision, didn’t he?  But we know invoking personal responsibility is simply passé, especially if the person involved in the rant thinks they can pin something on the right? 

Anyway, the probable difference is in a “pay for service” libertarian situation, it is more likely that the fire service chief on the scene and home owner would have quickly reached agreement on a price to save his home.  There’s an incentive for the “pay for play bunch” to reach that agreement.

However, government is more about bureaucracy and rules than it is incentive.  If the fire chief on the scene was a government worker he would most likely have no power to make such a decision.  And the fire fighters in question would have absolutely no incentive to fight the fire and every incentive not too – after all, this guy was a deadbeat and their rules said no pay, no play and they saw no reason to break the rules and risk their lives for someone who hadn’t thought enough of them or their service to subscribe.

So in reality, this wasn’t some libertarian fantasy gone awry.  It was a government driven decision with a pretty drastic consequence.  Apparently the government had not been able to imagine a contingency where this might happen, or, if they did, they seemingly had no plan to address it.  Most would call that “inept governance”, not a failure of libertarianism.

Oh, and the “county mayor” of Obion County TN? A Democrat:

Benny McGuire is announcing his candidacy for re-election to the office of Obion County mayor in the May 4 Democratic primary. McGuire said the last 31⁄2 years have been very busy and have been productive for the entire county.

Hmmm … how inconvenient.

~McQ

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