Pay-to-Spray Firefighters Watch as Home Burns

by Daniel Foster

Oy, this is bad for the libertarians:

OBION COUNTY, Tenn. – Imagine your home catches fire but the local fire department won’t respond, then watches it burn. That’s exactly what happened to a local family tonight.

A local neighborhood is furious after firefighters watched as an Obion County, Tennessee, home burned to the ground.

The homeowner, Gene Cranick, said he offered to pay whatever it would take for firefighters to put out the flames, but was told it was too late.  They wouldn’t do anything to stop his house from burning.

Each year, Obion County residents must pay $75 if they want fire protection from the city of South Fulton.  But the Cranicks did not pay.

The mayor said if homeowners don’t pay, they’re out of luck.

This fire went on for hours because garden hoses just wouldn’t put it out. It wasn’t until that fire spread to a neighbor’s property, that anyone would respond.

Turns out, the neighbor had paid the fee.

“I thought they’d come out and put it out, even if you hadn’t paid your $75, but I was wrong,” said Gene Cranick.

That bolded paragraph is what really gets to me. I have no problem with this kind of opt-in government in principle — especially in rural areas where individual need for government services and available infrastructure vary so widely. But forget the politics: what moral theory allows these firefighters (admittedly acting under orders) to watch this house burn to the ground when 1) they have already responded to the scene; 2) they have the means to stop it ready at hand; 3) they have a reasonable expectation to be compensated for their trouble?

The counterargument is, of course, that this kind of system only works if there are consequences for opting out. For the firefighters to have put out the blaze would have opened up a big moral hazard and generated a bunch of future free-riding — a lot like how the ban on denying coverage based on preexisting conditions, paired with penalties under the individual mandate that are lower than the going premiums, would lead to folks waiting until they got sick to buy insurance.

But that analogy is not quite apt. Mr. Cranick, who has learned an incredibly expensive lesson about risk, wasn’t offering to pay the $75 fee. He was offering to pay whatever it cost to put out the fire. If an uninsured man confronted with the pressing need for a heart transplant offered to pay a year in back-premiums to an insurer to cover the operation, you’d be right to laugh at him. But imagine if that man broke out his check book to pay for the whole shebang, and hospital administrators denied him the procedure to teach him a lesson.

I’m a conservative with fairly libertarian leanings, but this is a kind of government for which I would not sign up.

UPDATE: A reader writes:

Yes, he offered to pay, while his house burned. I can’t prove what would have happened, but the FD would probably have had to sue him to gain full reimbursement.  Maybe they need to start carrying pre-printed contracts for the homeowners to sign quickly and obligate themselves for the full cost plus a little profit.

And indeed, I should have said in the original post: Yes, make him sign a contract if you like. My point is that, if you’re the firefighter, you have all-things-considered reasons here to put out that fire. You’re a free, reasonable agent and you have to weigh your moral and prudential reasons for acting here. On the one side you have the chance of nonpayment, the potential for creating a free-rider problem, and your duties to the town and the department that employ you. On the other you have the fact that we’ve got a pretty sophisticated system for enforcing contracts — written or otherwise. You also have the fact that letting the blaze burn could lead to damaged property (not to mention loss of life) among fee-paying citizens. (Consider: if policing were opt-in, and an outlaw were holed up in your house with a gun to your head, should we wait to arrest him until he leaves your property — come what may?). And then there’s the little matter of your individual conscience.

Do readers think that the preponderance of your reasons here really tell you not to act?

UPDATE II: Kevin Williamson pops his head into my office, and as expected makes the compelling anarcho-capitalist case for letting the sucker burn. I don’t want to caricature his arguments, but then again, I didn’t have my tape recorder going, so my best approximation is: “Read your Pareto.” The status quo ante was no fire service for folks outside the city limits. Under that system both the Cranicks’ house and the neighbors’ burn to the ground. Under the current pay-to-spray program, only one house burns (as the department responded when a fee-paying neighbor worried that the fire was spreading). QED.

Resources are scarce, Kevin says. What if there are two house fires on different sides of town — one owned by a fee-payer, the other by a free rider — and only one truck to respond?

Well, by all means, in that case send the truck to the fee-payer first. But I think the Pareto argument sets up a false choice in the actual case. It’s not between one house burning to the ground and two houses burning to the ground. The South Fulton Fire Department already exists — its fixed costs funded by a combination of tax-dollars from in-city residents and opt-in fees from some county residents. It has already responded to the scene of the fire to protect a fee-payer’s property. There is an enforceable verbal agreement from the Cranicks to pay the full per-fire cost.

Kevin would have us think about Pareto optimality and aggregates here. But we’re not designing the policy from scratch, we’re applying the policy we have to a concrete case in which not just the parameters of the policy, but also our moral intuitions, have to be brought to bear.