The Disaster of Laissez Faire Social Services

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?

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8 comments

  1. The question is where we draw the line. What if we start to say that clean water is a sort of basic right and cities should provide it for ‘free’ on the consumption end and pay for it with tax dollars?

    Secondary question – is this a volunteer fire department or are the firemen govt employees?

    1. Charging for water separately allows for the freedom to consume as much or as little as you want; it’s the insfrastructure that is provided “free” by everyone’s tax dollars, and the infrastructure is what ensures everyone has access to clean water.

      This situation wouldn’t be so absurd if they simply sent the family a bill after putting out the fire, like with an ambulance service. Nobody really really wants to do without fire protection, but if you give them the option to save money, they’ll take it, because the odds and the consequences are hard to comprehend.

      I if this family had fire insurance. Probably not.

    2. Sadly, considering what I pay for “clean water” it is nearly free . . .

  2. You know where I stand on the answer to your last question, ACG, so I’ll just answer Mike’s second question instead. As I understand it, they’re government employees of a different jurisdiction that Obion County contracts with.

    1. And your point is? When your house is on fire and you call 911, will you carefully read the print on the side of the first in engine company and then decide whether you should have called them? No – if they are the people who are supposed to fiht fire in your neighborhood you will expect them to fight the fire. So did this home owner, and there is no reason other then sheer stubborn stupidity why those firefighters didn’t fight the fire, and hand the guy a bill after.

      1. I don’t have a point, I was just trying to provide the information Mike asked for. If you really want me to have a point, I can try and think of one, but these people in their bizarre county really don’t get me fired up.

  3. A good comment from the Think Progress article:

    “Some people would rather subscribe for services that used to be provided through tax dollars by the city government.

    Of course, a lot of people would band together in order to be able to negotiate a smaller fee.

    Then they would form a committee to negotiate these fees for these various services with the providers.

    Then they would have to choose who would be on that committee, probably with a show of hands. The person with the most “hands” would serve on the committee on behalf of the band of people.

    Instead of paying each individual service provider, the band of people would pay the committee directly in a lump sum, and leave it to the committee to mete out the payments to the individual providers.

    Every now and then, they would replace members of the committee with a new “show of hands”. Those doing the job properly would most likely be reinstated.

    Of course, it would a whole lot better than GOVERNMENT.”

  4. It’s not a one to one comparison, but I find the recent investigation into for-profit colleges to speak to the same dangers of putting money before everything else, I found these stories to be disturbing: http://www.theawl.com/2010/10/how-the-for-profit-college-can-destroy-your-life

    While there are plenty of improvements that can be done to many sectors of our country, putting profits and the market as a top priority always has it’s own dangers.

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