In one of the more bizzare stories of the year, we may have the beginnings of a conservative overreach: specifically, Obion County, Tennessee, provides firefighting services by paid subscription only ($75 per year). After the county steadfastly refused to help a “free rider” family when their house burned down, the county expanded its subscription-only services, and Glenn Beck mocked the family, and explained that these are the kinds of growing pains we’ll have to endure, as we move to a more “free market” society. The National Review aggressively concurred. This is the height of absurdity, and demonstrates the growing conservative conflation of the welfare state with the basic incidents of a functioning society.
National security, from external and internal enemies, is the most basic definition of a “public good,” the burden for which ought to be carried by all citizens in kind. Accordingly, no-one has ever really questioned the notion, in the modern era at least, that an army and a navy ought to be paid for by the common tax base. And few have questioned that internal security, from defenses against human enemies (espionage/sabotage), disease, and natural disasters, should be paid for in the same way. In a civilized nation, it is rare that a plight fitting any of those definitions will ever affect one citizen and one citizen only. Disease is transmitted; crime spreads; and fire knows no property line. Even divorced from morality, one man’s problem is every man’s.
Assigning this important work to government also avoids the possibility for extortion, graft, and corruption, ever-present in government (but not in this sector), and a basic incentive of life in the for-profit world. Ancient Rome provides the classic example of abusive capitalism: Marcus Licinius Crassus, triumvir, owned the city of Rome’s firefighting company. When a fire broke out, his company would arrive at the scene and negotiate an (ever-decreasing) offer to buy the house, and only put out the fire when the owner sold his property for pennies on the dollar (sestertii on the denarius?). Crassus’ personal gain: considerable. Families impoverished as a result: many. Net gain to society: starkly negative.
When such perils — and any engagement with the “free rider problem” — can be avoided by a tax increase of $0.13 (pdf), query whether refusing a modest expense, and letting a man’s home burn around him, demonstrates any useful principle, or the kind of extremism and ideological purity that has no place in the Real World.
Note, too, that the same result follows, although with slightly less clarity, in the context of health care. Take it as true (because it is) that no hospital can let a patient die, even if they’re dirt poor, and present with an expensive-to-cure, otherwise-immediately-fatal medical problem. Do we let the situation stand as it is, where the poor have an incentive to wait until they’re at death’s door to go to the emergency room, or subsidize and incentivize preventative care to make sure it never gets to that point, to help them, and minimize the drain on public resources? Or do we follow the “conservative solution,” seemingly accepted by Beck and the National Review in the above example, and just let them die?