State Firefighters Let House Burn

Libertarian firefighters are more flexible and subject to market incentives.

Update: Here’s an article from The Freeman about a private firefighting company in Arizona that doesn’t let houses burn to the ground.

Watch state firefighters twiddle their thumbs as a house burns to the ground. They can’t do anything because the homeowner didn’t buy a subscription to their service. Libertarian wet dream? Or authoritarian reality? You may be surprised.

The firefighters that refused to help this family are employed by the state. They are not a market organization. The state does not respond to market incentives. It doesn’t have the capacity to accept a higher fee for last-minute service. Market organizations do have that capacity. Airlines don’t make you wait two weeks to fly, they just charge more if your need is urgent. Gas stations don’t only offer one kind of gas. They just charge more for the higher quality ones.

Libertarians want market organizations to provide services with free and open competition. I am a libertarian who is not in favor of a state-run fire brigade such as this. I find it utterly stupid and self-destructive of them to not save this house. The fire brigade is short of funds. Imagine their windfall from situations like this! Instead of a measly $75 per house per year they could charge $2,000 to save a house on the spot. If I ran a fire brigade, I would save his house just so I could get him as a customer. If I didn’t, a competitor might.

Over at the Alexandria blog, the author claims that this fire brigade is a private entity contracted by the local government, thus making it a libertarian relationship. That’s about as libertarian as the federal government hiring Blackwater to fight their wars for them. It’s right up there with states outsourcing their prisons to private companies. Government outsourcing is a corporatist state model. It’s about crony capitalism. It is not libertarian. Government operations that are contracted out on a monopoly basis to corporations are not the same as free markets with full and open competition.

I hope the people of Obion county, Tennessee don’t demand more services from their local governments. Do you really want more of the same? Their best hope lies in forming a volunteer firefighting department. We are the solution we’ve been waiting for. The state has no magic wand to do anything we can’t already do.

Suburban Guerilla thinks this is a libertarian wet dream. But it’s the authoritarian reality we face today. Authoritarians like to have monopolies. They tout their zero-tolerance policies. Buy our service the way we say, or you get nothing at all. That’s dumb. That’s the state.

Photo credit: dvs. Photo license.

By George Donnelly

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15 replies on “State Firefighters Let House Burn”

For fire fighting the only way to go is the local, citizen-member, volunteer fire brigade. I don’t mind the idea of paying an annual subscription or whatever for a professional force, but in every town I’ve lived in where the fire fighters are worth a damn, they’re volunteers.

Parallel issue:

I once had to get a motorcycle out of impound. I only got notice of the vehicle having been impounded several weeks after I was flown to a medical Emergency Department; my attention was, as you might understand, focused on my recovery of my health rather than the vehicle–and when I got to the impound lot I found they wanted $20 a day to free my bike. That’s what they charged for cars. Cars that take up at least 8x as much lot space.

How could they do that? Well, they had a monopoly from the County.

There was no incentive to notify me promptly–every day I didn’t pick the bike up was money in their pocket!

And when I got there this weedy puberty-afflicted little pr*** tried to get me to sell the bike to him, sight unseen. I managed to brush past him and get to the bike. Lo and behold, someone had been trying to pull the electric starter (probably worth $300 to the right person) but couldn’t figure out how [trust me, laying a motorcycle down on pavement doesn’t result in its electric starter bolts being run out half way].

Gee, how does that sort of thing happen in a bonded, State-monopoly-contracted impound lot?

Racketeering, that’s how.

Militant and mmblah, thanks for commenting.

The impound issue is very similar. These lots, although they may be contracted out on a monopoly basis to cronies, are not outside the state. They just further separate the responsible people from the ability to hold them accountable for their actions. Sorry to hear about your bike.

Fully private firefighting *could* lead to something like this happenning.

A much simpler way to do it is fund common firefighters by insurance on a pay-per-use basis, with home, auto, and medical insurance covering the costs for fire and EMTs depending on the case. They could be publicly run or be a private cooperative, but it would get around the tax problem.

I just wonder what would have happened had someone been trapped in there and died…

Absolutely. We have no idea how market organizations would react and voluntary relations is not a panacea.

In an ideal world, the insurance idea might work out better for most people. However, given the situation we are in right now, the quickest route to a solution for the people of Obion, TN is a self-organized firefighting brigade. Waiting for the insurance companies is a no-starter in this particular context.

The state fire brigade involved stated they would have put out the fire had someone been inside the house.

Some of the facts in this article are wrong. The fire department belongs to a local city. The taxpayers in that city support it with their taxes. The county does not have fire departments. (This is changing as the county is now paying or looking to pay the various cities to have their fire departments provide services to the county residents.) County residents could, at their choice, pay the cities in Obion county a subscription fee for fire protection. This resident decided, for what ever reason, not to pay that fee. It is the same principle as insurance, you can’t wreck your car then ask the insurance company to write you a policy. The fire department did provide services to the neighbors who had paid the subscription fee.

Chris, thanks for your comment. “By the state” means ‘by a governmental organization’. It doesn’t mean by the state of Tennessee. I’m speaking in libertarian parlance so I can understand why you might be confused if you’re not hip to libertarian insights. The city and county governments are both states, albeit small ones. Therefore, there are no factual errors, or at least none so far identified.

Yet it is not sold as insurance. It’s a service. And the fact remains that a market organization has the flexibility to accept a higher fee for last-minute service. The state apparently does not in my experience (with the exception of passport issuance). The fact also remains that this state fire brigade was incredibly self-destructive. Instead of capturing a part of the value of that house in the form of a last-minute service fee, they let the entire value be lost to the fire.

Actually, if the free market was really operating, homes would have residential fire sprinkler systems, which are FAR more effective than police departments. They would pay for themselves in lower insurance premiums, and they aren’t that expensive anyway (I had one installed in a house I was building). We’d likely have fewer houses burning down if we had no fire departments at all.

“Instead of a measly $75 per house per year they could charge $2,000 to save a house on the spot.”

Yes, except it might have to be much higher than 2k. Say there are 1,000 people paying them $75 by subscription. If paying 2k on-the-spot was an option, almost everyone would take it – the chances of your house burning are very low! So instead of 75k guaranteed operating fees, the FD will have an occasional small windfall when and if there’s a fire rather than a steady guaranteed income. To compensate for this, the per-fire fees would have to be (amt they’re getting now by subscription) / number of expected fires, which would probably be well above 2k. And this would disincentive any sort of fire *prevention* programs, as they’d want to maximize revenue.

I agree they should have offered to fight the fire on the spot, but *at cost plus 25%* or some such punitively high amount.

That’s a valid point. All I’m saying is that market organizations have the *capacity* to be more flexible and accept higher payment at the last minute. Whether one does and another doesn’t is irrelevant.

Govt could also incorporate that flexibility, though I agree it’s less likely to. Something I think a lot of libs miss is that beauracracy is not confined to govt, but is widespread in business too.

This is the peril of arguing for freedom on purely pragmatic grounds. One can imagine govt doing things “right”, and of course we often see business doing things “wrong”. The point we need to hammer home is that force is wrong. This story is not stave versus enterprise – it’s simply a discussion about the best way to provide fire service. What I want is a fire service that’s not immoral.

I suppose white can be painted black but that’s besides the point. Government has proven itself rather inflexible in dealing with the people it claims to serve. It’s reasonably flexible in keeping itself afloat.

When I say “market organization” I am not referring to “business”, and especially not as we currently know it in the form of corporations.

If you want to limit yourself to talking about force, that’s your business. As for me, I intend to discuss any angle that I consider relevant or useful.

The bottom line for many people is that they don’t want to see houses burn down. They don’t care how it’s done. And my point is that market organizations are subject to better incentives and are more flexible, so they’re more likely to put out more fires.

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