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Tuesday, October 05, 2010

I'm not saying the guy deserved to lose his trailer...

As you may have heard, somewhere in Tennessee, a man's home burned down while firefighters watched, Because he had failed to pay a $75 fee.

There's a lot of bleating and squealing about this among some portion of the left. Most of it unwarranted. A lot of it based on feeling, rather than an appreciation of the circumstances.

Here are the facts as I understand them:

That's about it. Cranick didn't pay the fee. His claim most recently is that he forgot to pay, but initially he said he thought the fire department would come to his rescue even if he didn't pay it.

Keith Olbermann, who according to rumor is thinking of leasing the top of his head to the Air Force as an emergency landing strip (he could use his eyebrows to signal the planes in), had Cranick on his show the other night.

Of Olbermann, one can only say that he was a fine sportscaster.

I bring this story to the WS only because it is being used as a club to beat up on libertarians who -- one hears -- not only would allow a man's home to burn to the ground over $75, but would literally celebrate the occurrence.


Rather than confronting this rather silly assault directly, I have put together a list of conditions a left-wing interlocutor must satisfy before I will take anything he or she says about this case seriously.

(Olbermann, pictured to the right, doesn't qualify):

If you're a leftist and want to discuss the case of Gene Cranick with me, you must

  1. Demonstrate that you understand the legal constraints the city of South Fulton was under.
  2. Acknowledge the existence of the free rider problem, and the ways the city had tried to resolve the problem in the past.
  3. Come up with a way of resolving this particular free rider problem such that:
    (i) The resolution is consistent with the legal constraints,
    (ii) The resolution does not involve charging county residents a voluntary fee, and
    (iii) The resolution must allow the city to continue to provide fire department service to its taxpaying residents (i.e. bankrupting the city so nobody gets service is not a valid solution, however much it conforms to your egalitarian sensibilities.)

I have yet to find a left-winger who can meet these conditions, but I've heard a lot in the last day or so about how it's just terrible that South Fulton doesn't tax the county residents, or how the city's fire department should just put out fires all across the county, no questions asked.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, my XBox just announced that my yearly XBox Live Gold membership is about to expire, and it's going to charge my credit card. If for whatever reason the card fails, I'll be notified by email.

And that Gold membership? It's almost as much as the fee South Fulton was charging for fire department services. Except the free market (and Microsoft) has devised a way to get around my forgetfulness. And it's almost like Microsoft doesn't want my subscription to lapse. Funny how that works! Bill-gates_reut1

Want to bet that South Fulton's process of charging the fee for the use of its fire department is less reliable than Microsoft? And we're supposed to blame the free market for Gene Cranick's trailer burning down?

Left: Someone more efficacious than both Keith Olbermann and South Fulton's fire department.

Posted by Terrence Watson on October 5, 2010 | Permalink



All I know about this story I got from just reading your post, but I think I can see what the Bobby Huller ... er ... "left-winger" reply probably should be. Their view (I think) is that the provision of a tax payer paid-for fire department is a requirement of any minimally adequate government, so the county, by voting against paying for the fire service offered and not providing an alternative service, is most blameworthy. The Bobby Huller ... er ... "left-winger" might also suggest that the county, by voting against paying the fee and by not offering an alternative service, was doing what libertarians think a government should do, thus their conclusion that libertarians are the villain in the story.

As for South Fulton, I suppose the criticism should be that if the fire department were legally prohibited from helping anyone who had not paid their fee even when they were on the scene and able to help is a reductio of the legitimacy of their own policies. There is something, they would say, that is fundamentally wrong with a government policy that says "don't help those in desperate need when you can do so unless they have paid for the service in advance".

Now here is where, I imagine, you want to bring the free rider problem in to the story. But the Bobby Huller position should be that South Fulton actually created a potential free rider situation by offering to help in the manner that they did. They effectively endorsed a libertarian-style fire service by saying that they would help people on a case-by-case basis based on who paid and who didn't, resulting in a man getting no help who needed it. They would say that South Fulton should have offered to provide the service on an all-or-nothing basis (the preferred Bobby Huller set up).

An analogous situation is the Bobby Huller view of foreign aid: Foreign governments ought to take better care of their citizens than they do, but rather than stand by and watch those people suffer and die, in the absence of right action by the local government we ought, as much as we can, help out those people based on their need.

Two final notes: (1) I say this is what I think their response should be to be consistent Bobby Hullers, not that this is what their response has been. Like I said, I only know what I read here, which does not say what their specific criticism has been. (2) I am sure there are lots of dumb responders who will think the answer I give above is my assessment of the situation and want to argue with me about it. Those people are idiots and will be ignored.

Posted by: Fact Check | 2010-10-05 9:40:40 PM

Fact Check,

Hmm! One of your arguments I haven't seen before: that South Fulton actually created the free rider problem.

I'm not even sure SF would be ABLE to provide fire service to the county without charging some kind of fee. The county is much bigger than the city, with a higher population.

I can see the point that if SF did not make the offer, maybe the county would have established its own fire department. But that creates a weird dilemma I'm not sure how to handle:

A. If the city makes no offer, the county still might not step up, and if it doesn't then nobody in the county will get fire service.

B. If the city does make an offer, the county certainly won't step up (we're assuming), so only some people in the county will get fire service. Some people in the county will lose their homes.

C. If the city tried to cover the county without charging a fee, service to the people in the city would almost certainly suffer -- and might stop entirely, and then nobody in the city OR the county will get fire service.

I'm not sure what the solution to this dilemma is, from the point of view of the city. There are several ethical principles in play.

I know you're playing devil's advocate (or something along those lines), but what would you do, if you were in charge of city policy?

Posted by: Terrence | 2010-10-05 10:06:18 PM

Not much to this story. The homeowner didn't feel like supporting the FD, so he doesn't get their help when he needs it. Although he offered to pay whatever they wanted to put out the fire, it ignores the fact that this would set a precedent that for most people it just isn't worth it to pay the $75 fee, as they probably won't ever have a fire at their house. The FD would lose much more money from this than they would from putting out the fire and charging Mr. Cranick.

That said, fire protection should be a public service covered by taxes, but they voted against that in this community, so this is what they get.

Posted by: Brad | 2010-10-05 11:01:18 PM


Of your three scenarios, B sounds like the present policy. So since that is not acceptable to the Bobby Hullers, they would seem to have to support A or C. Supporting C would not work if service to the city would be significantly hurt. But it's not impossible to imagine that SF could afford to provide the service for free without hurting city service or going bankrupt. And if that could be done, then maybe aid to the county (like foreign aid) would be the preferred route.

But I still think that something like A should be the preferred Huller solution (although in my version they offer to service the whole county if the county pays for all or else they give no service). If C really would create hardship for city folks, then it is the only alternative left. But even if C would not create hardship, a Huller could argue that while governments in each jurisdiction have the obligation to tax and provide services like fire departments that governments do not have the same obligations to people outside their jurisdiction, so while A might seem mean, it could be the "tough love" the county needs to get it to fulfill it's obligations.

Posted by: Fact Check | 2010-10-05 11:02:14 PM

As a "lefty" I would say that people who refuse to pay their taxes and fees but want to free ride on other peoples taxes and fees should not expect to get government services for free. However I would also say that the fire department should not stand by and let someone's house burn down.

A simple solution to the problem would be for the fire service to have a standing offer to provide services to non-fee paying residence for costs plus a sizable non-member call out fee. (Say $1,000.) With a public offer like this the non-paying residences would then be responsible for deciding whether or not to call the fire services and the fire services could respond to any fire station without worrying about unfairly burdening the people who are willing to pay their fair share of taxes or fees.

Posted by: Rick | 2010-10-06 1:08:47 AM

I agree with Rick.

"Pay your dues, and you're protected. Choose not to pay, and we'll help you for a large fee ($1000 or so) if you need us. The risk is your's to take, but we won't just stand by and watch your house burn down."

Just as a doctor isn't supposed to just stand there while a sick or injured person suffers or dies because they are uninsured, so should there be fire protection (as well as police).

Health and safety should come before money.

Posted by: Will | 2010-10-06 4:55:35 AM

This is a tough call, because you have ethics and humanity at odds with legal realities that can't be ignored. Rick's and Brad's positions are are good summations of the two positions one can take, and both have merit.

Having said that, insurance companies don't offer to replace a non-subscriber's house if he offers to pay 10% of the cost of the house in cash, and why should they? It is the old, old story--there is no such thing as unaffordable insurance. Maybe on his next home he'll buy proper coverage instead of cigarettes.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2010-10-06 6:40:38 AM

    Health and safety should come before money.

Will, statements like this are a big part of the reason liberals have a reputation for being generous only with other people's money. Moreover, administering CPR is safe; fighting a fire is not. Do you seriously expect men to risk their lives for no pay? And what if there is another fire, and that person has paid their fee, and their house burns down anyway because they're tied up at the house of non-payer?

This man's home wasn't worth $75 to him. So why should it be worth anything to the firemen?

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2010-10-06 6:44:57 AM

I can't buy car insurance AFTER the wreck, either.

As such, defending the Tennessee fire fighters is easy:

But the actions of the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin, who seem hellbent on torching the entire STATE:

...are entirely inexcusable...


Posted by: J. Gravelle | 2010-10-06 8:28:28 AM

I'm guessing the owner didn't have insurance as the difference in premiums for fire department coverage versus none would easily cover the $75 annual fee.

Just another taxation on stupidity, slightly different than Scratch and Wins.

Posted by: John Chittick | 2010-10-06 10:07:19 AM

This is no different an issue than a person who forgoes fire insurance on his home. Should he be allowed to retroactively demand insurance coverage if he has a fire? Of course not.

This isn't a fictional case. I know of several people who do not have fire insurance on their home, either because they can't afford it or the house just isn't that valuable. It's their decision, and the collective has no responsibility to force them to adhere to a preconceived notion of "prudence".

I know someone whose house actually did burn down with no insurance recently, despite the best efforts of the local fire department. The community held a fundraiser to help him with rebuilding costs, which is entirely appropriate. No one has suggested that he be forced to buy insurance in the future, although if he takes out a mortgage, the mortgage provider is likely to insist on it. Once the mortgage is paid off, however, you're free to do what you like. Which is the way it should be.

The problem with mandated retroactive insurance or fire protection is that no one has any incentive to pay premiums and/or fees ahead of time, which pretty much obliterates the whole concept of insurance. Given enough time, it would also shut down the fire department and insurance companies altogether by starving them of funding.

Posted by: Dennis | 2010-10-06 10:30:13 AM

My feeling is that it was his choice.

Since many fire departments in rural area are VOLUNTEER - why would they risk their lives with equipment he Chose NOT to support???

Posted by: The LS from SK | 2010-10-06 12:02:11 PM

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