Krugman Gets Pay-to-Spray Wrong

by Daniel Foster

The steady stream of e-mails on the South Fulton fire story — 70/30 disagreeing with me — continues, as if issuing from the working end of a fire hose located anywhere else but in South Fulton, Tennessee.

I don’t have much more to add, except to note that Paul Krugman, in a brief blog post on the subject, makes a really bad analogy:

This is essentially the same as denying someone essential medical care because he doesn’t have insurance. So the question is, do you want to live in the kind of society in which this happens?

No. Krugman would have been correct if he’d said “This is essentially the same as an insurance company refusing to pay for someone’s essential medical care because that person never bought insurance in the first place.” And I don’t mind living in that kind of society at all.

The argument that I made was about the moral and prudential cost/benefit analysis attached to the question of whether firefighters, having responded to the scene to protect a neighboring fee-payer’s property,  were right in watching the freerider’s house burn to the ground.

Since then I’ve been convinced by conversation with some smart libertarians that the policy itself may be untenable. In short because fire protection is contingently — that is, in this instance — a non-excludable public good. In all but the most diffuse populations, government services really need to be geographically contiguous to be coherent. (Imagine a pocket of ten non-fee-paying houses encircled by ten fee-paying houses. Would anyone — fee-payers or firemen — really want to let a blaze encompass all ten freeriders before acting?)

My moral argument hinged on a reasonable expectation that the free-riding homeowner would (or would be compelled to) reimburse the fire department for its costs after the fact. The argument from non-excludability suggests a policy that doesn’t leave fire protection optional: Obion County should either levy a tax to pay for fire protection for all unincorporated lands, or South Fulton should cancel its opt-in service for unincorporated properties altogether. But neither argument forgives free-riding.