The South Fulton Fire Department in Obion County, TN is making the news again because yet another non-subscriber in the county had their place burn down with the Fire Department standing by and not putting out the fire.
A lot of people in my Twitter stream–mostly my liberal-leaning writer friends–are linking to that article with comments like “The Libertarian dream”. I know that these folks are smart people, and seeing them boil the issue down to its emotional basis like that ticks me off a little.
Let’s break it down for a moment. There’s a town–South Fulton–with a fire department that is financed by the taxes of the townsfolk. The fire department provides coverage for the people of the town (not “for free”, as the article says, but paid for by their taxes). If you live outside of the town limits, the South Fulton FD does not provide coverage unless you pay an annual fee of $75, to cover the costs of out-of-area service. Gas is expensive, firemen want to get paid, someone needs to keep the lights on in the fire station, and all that. Fair enough, right? The FD is, after all, a resource of the town of South Fulton, paid for by its residents, and can’t be expected to provide services free of charge to people who don’t pay to support the fire department.
The two incidents so far where county residents had their houses burn down without help from the fire department–those were people hedging their bets. They chose to not pay the $75 for annual coverage for whatever reason, and they lost the wager. (Some people will say that these people probably couldn’t afford the coverage, but if you own a house, you can afford $75 a year for what is essentially insurance. I bet I could sift through the ruins of the latest burned-0ut house and find a fair number of items that are both a.) non-essential, and b.) worth more than $75.)
Now, why exactly is that such a horrible thing? What case could you possibly make for the Fire Department to put out the fires for people who chose not to pay the fee that wouldn’t result in a collapse of the system? If they had put the fire out anyway, few county residents would have paid the fee next year, knowing that when push comes to shove, the FD will turn on the hoses and go to work for free anyway. Then the only alternatives for the town of South Fulton are to either subsidize the fire service for the entire county, or cancel the scheme altogether and keep their services strictly for the taxpayers of South Fulton. In an ideal world, city and county could both afford all the fire trucks and manpower they need to service everyone. As things stand, the resources are limited, and they’ve made a reasonable compromise–the current “pay to spray” option. Which is the better alternative for the county folk–optional fire service at $75 a year, or no fire service at all for free?
It’s really easy to look at this purely from the emotional angle and say stuff like “Libertarian dream” with a sarcastic inflection. Yes, it’s bad that those people lost their house, but they rolled their dice and took their chances. Shield everyone from the consequences of bad decisions–and make no mistake, forgoing fire coverage over the price of a tank of gas is a monumentally bad one–and you take away the incentives to make good decisions. If you roll your eyes at anyone in that scenario for being “Libertarian”, it should be the homeowners, who acted in the most libertarian way of all–they were presented with a voluntary contract option, they chose to keep their money and reject the contract, and they got to live with the consequences of their decision, without the community having to shoulder the financial burden of their selfishness.