October 07, 2010

Burning down the house

So here's a story: a home in Tennessee catches fire, the owner calls 911, the Fire Department doesn't respond, the fire spreads to the neighbour's home, the neighbour calls 911, the FD responds to him and puts out his fire, the firefighters will not do anything to put out the first fire, they stand around watching that house burn to the ground.

This is not something I made up. Last week, it really happened. (Oddly, three years ago I drove within a couple of miles of where it happened, on my way to a nearby spot that charmed me).

Why did it happen? Well, residents of that county must pay $75 every year to get firefighting services from the city of South Fulton. This homeowner, Gene Cranick, had not paid this fee this year. (Apparently he has paid it in the past, but forgot this year). So he was not entitled to the service. His neighbour had paid. So he was entitled.

This kind of fee is part of what's loosely called "opt-in government", which can make sense in thinly populated rural areas. I have no argument with the fee. To a degree, I have no argument with the FD not responding to Cranick: he had not paid the fee and had effectively "opted out". OK. But then these firefighters turned up at the spot anyway, with the equipment and the expertise to put out Cranick's fire. They put out his neighbour's fire. So why would they stand and watch Cranick's house burn down, and do nothing to stop it? This seems just bizarre and crazy to me.

Bizarre or not, this episode has touched off a small storm among libertarians, the guys who make the case for small and limited government. Daniel Foster of the National Review ("I’m a conservative with fairly libertarian leanings") said he was OK with opt-in government, but then asked: "What moral theory allows these firefighters (admittedly acting under orders) to watch this house burn to the ground?"

His colleague at the magazine, Kevin Williamson, responded: "Dan, you're 100 percent wrong … The world is full of jerks, freeloaders, and ingrates — and the problems they create for themselves are their own."

There was more. One thinker said that letting this house burn "will probably save more houses in the long haul". Another drew a line between "sogginess" and "crunchiness", saying conservatives need to "stand up for crunchiness" and "for the fire department to have extinguished the Cranicks’ fire would have been soggy." Right. What should we call watching a family's life go up in smoke then? (Links and comment available here).

And all this reminded me that I haven't heard of or from Indian libertarians in a long time. They referred to themselves as a cartel a few years ago. Has the cartel disbanded? Dispersed? Do they now call themselves the term some scorned, "liberal"? I've seen some evidence of that in recent times. (Besides, somebody informed me last year that "I am libertarian and hitting back at Muslims and teaching them a lesson is fundamental to our philosophy" -- I assume this guy is a crank).

How does the cartel see this firefighting case in Tennessee?


I am reminded of this image by Joel Sternfeld, one of my favourite photographers.


Anonymous said...

Let's see -- if you don't buy insurance you don't get the coverage. However if you make the dying-person-physician analogy it doesnt make any sense. I wonder what happened to the idea of "The Good Samaritan"? Turned into "The bad Tax Collector". What a waste.

Vivek K said...

Hi Dilip,

There are a lot more details to this story. MeFi has had a long discussion on this.

Some broad takeaways..

1. The properties which are charged a fee are outside the City's jurisdiction. The City provides the service (for a fee) only because the County does not have a Fire Department.

2. Ideally, the County would be providing the service, and it would be paid from the taxes collected (such as property tax) by the County.

3. Since the County has not done so, and the City can't collect property taxes outside its jurisdiction, the City provides the service for a fee.

4. The Fire Department claims that they send out a lot of reminders and even call people to pay the fee. So, if someone has not paid the fee, it is because they don't want the service for sure.

5. One more way would be for the County to collect the appropriate taxes, and pay a collective fee to the City for this service for everyone in the County. But hey, that sounds like OMG SOCIALISM!

6. So, the situation is that people in this County (by and large) don't like paying taxes (because, you know, OMG SOCIALISM!) and are presumably happy with the arrangement - individuals making informed choices and whatnot.

Suresh said...

I personally think there is a case to be made for the county. If the "opt-in" policy is to be taken seriously by the people in the county, then the county must make it very clear that if someone does not pay the fee then he/she will not receive the service under any circumstance. The fact that the county stood by and allowed the house to burn down will, if nothing else, make it clear to others that the county is serious about "opt-in."

The logic here is similar to that offered by a blackmailer that Sherlock Holmes encountered. When Holmes points out that he would gain nothing by exposing his client, the blackmailer responds that it is not true: it would make the blackmailer's other "clients" aware that if they don't pay, they would get exposed.

Just to be clear: I am not drawing an equivalence between firefighting and blackmailing. Just that in both cases, the issue (no help to someone who has not paid, exposing someone who does not meet the blackmailer's demands) cannot be looked at in isolation. That is the crux of the matter.

Now, should the county have "opt-in" about something like fire-fighting? I am more than a little troubled here. Suppose the house owner had young children. Should the lives of minor children be put at risk because the parents choose to opt-out? Should the parents be allowed to get away with it? Personally, I don't think so. But I don't know the details of the policy.

Suresh said...

Following up my own comment, the Sherlock Holmes story is The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton. The relevant excerpt is this:

"What I say is true," Holmes answered. "The money cannot be found. Surely it is better for you to take the substantial sum which I offer than to ruin this woman's career, which can profit you in no way?"
"There you make a mistake, Mr. Holmes. An exposure would profit me indirectly to a considerable extent. I have eight or ten similar cases maturing. If it was circulated among them that I had made a severe example of the Lady Eva I should find all of them much more open to reason. You see my point?"

Dilip D'Souza said...

Vivek, thanks for the MeFi pointer. Enjoyed the debate there.

Suresh, I'm ok with the country charging the fee. I'm not so ok with knowing that the FD came to the spot, with their equipment, and refused to do anything to stop the fire. Something is twisted there. As you say, suppose there were small children, or older parents, or even pets, in the house?

In one of these discussions I saw (can't remember where now), someone made the point that one answer is to charge guys like this Cranick something so heavy -- like $10K perhaps -- in a case like this that they would all pay their $75 every year.

Thanks for the Holmes parallel. Very enlightening.