The Corner

Re: Re: Pay to Spray

Jonah, you know how to hit a guy where it hurts: deploying my precious Burke against me and calling me the dread double C-word. But notice, my argument isn’t about the wisdom of the policy, or of Mr. Cranick for not opting into it. It’s about what to do if you’re the fire chief sitting in front of the burning house. As I said in response to Kevin, we’re not talking from “the original position” here. We’re in medias res:

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.

Now, maybe the fire was too far gone by the time they responded to the fee-paying neighbor’s call, or it would have been too dangerous, or there is some other similarly compelling prudential reason to let the sucker burn. But if there wasn’t, I ask again. What case can be made for doing nothing?

Besides, I’m constitutionally allergic to any libertarian argument that calls on “aggregates” or “the greater good” in its defense. This is a much, much longer conversation, but I’m inclined to think those kinds of appeals are anti-libertarian on their face. There are few more serious political libertarians than the late Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick, whose central insight was that no political regime can legitimately use some collectivity as the fundamental unit of analysis. Nozick said:

“There is no social entity with a good that undergoes some sacrifice for its own good. There are only individual people, different individual people, with their own individual lives. Using one of these people for the benefit of others, uses him and benefits the others. Nothing more.”

But that cuts both ways. Just as we shouldn’t buy it when liberals tell us we should all be forced to buy health insurance “for the greater good,” I’m not convinced by Derb’s argument that the Cranick’s house should have been left to burn to teach us all a valuable lesson.

God does not play dice and He has not built moral creatures who are confronted with aggregates or averages. No, we’re confronted with real individual people and real individual problems, and surely we must make decisions on those grounds. Surely we don’t need slide rulers and crystal balls and degrees in behavioral psychology to figure out the right thing to do.


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