05 Oct 2010

Firefighters Watch House Burn Down

Economics 30 Comments

Oh man, the progressives are really going nuts about this one. Apparently there is a fire department that watched a rural Tennessee house burn down, because the residents hadn’t paid the $75 annual subscription fee. (HT2 Krugman) Here is ThinkProgress’s initial reaction, and then see them cast National Review bloggers into hell.

This is a tough one. I am a wimp and agree with both sides. That is, I agree with Jonah Goldberg et al. for saying that hey, it takes real resources to field a fire department and be prepared to put out fires. If people don’t pay the measly $75 annual fee, then what the heck? Actions have consequences, and this will make sure people pay up. (My only personal addition: Krugman & Friends are going on and on about how much more compassionate they are than the heartless conservatives. But of course, the way Krugman & Friends “solve” this problem isn’t to chip in their own money to cover those who refuse to pay fire or health insurance premiums–no, their progressive, compassionate solution is to tell those people, “We are taking the money from you at gunpoint.”)

On the other hand, I also agree with the progressives that this is absurd. At the very least, the fire department should have put out the fire, and then charged the family a penalty rate. This is different from the auto insurance example that the fire chief gave. This isn’t like someone wrecking his car (or getting cancer) and then trying to sign up for insurance. No, the family would have been glad to pay the expenses (not just marginal but also average cost, as depicted in econ textbooks) for the firefighters to put out the fire, instead of standing there and watching it burn.

Last point: If we actually had a free market, with competing fire departments, there’s no way in the world this would have happened. If one company had gotten to the scene, and then watched the house burn down, everybody would have switched to a competitor.

But of course that nuance is going to be lost in this debate. Instead, we will have “conservatives” at National Review defending the “free market,” and progressives calling for compassionate coercion.

Ah, America.

30 Responses to “Firefighters Watch House Burn Down”

  1. Bob Roddis says:

    Last point: If we actually had a free market, with competing fire departments, there’s no way in the world this would have happened. If one company had gotten to the scene, and then watched the house burn down, everybody would have switched to a competitor.

    But of course that nuance is going to be lost in this debate.

    1. Ever notice that in ALL of our debates, every single nuance is invariably lost on our opponents?

    2. Allowing the house to burn down is just another example of the magic of governmental “zero tolerance” in action.

    3. A few years ago, my dad died and left me a 1971 model year boat on Lake St. Clair near Detroit which he had purchased new. I never had an interest in learning all the details of how to manage and run the boat, so in 2006 as he was rapidly going senile, I managed to get all of the details out of him barely a week before it would have been too late. He had a small extra outboard motor on the boat for use in case the main motor wouldn’t start. Apparently, he was too cheap to pay $54 a year for a private towing service. I never learned about the towing service until my fourth season using the boat.

    In 2008, I took a boat trip from St. Clair Shores (where my marina is) to Algonac, Michigan. As I was heading into a marina to get gas, the forward gear went out. That’s when I learned about the private towing service. If you have paid the $54, the tow is FREE from ANYWHERE. If you haven’t paid, It’s $1200. (Being towed from anywhere is important, since it’s quite possible to chug up the river to either Lake Huron or Lake Erie and be 60 miles from the home marina. And you can be towed from Canada, with the Canadian border running down the entire river and lake system).

    Lucky for me, the marina I stopped in had a better in-house mechanic than my own marina and he found and installed a used replacement outdrive within three days and I was able to drive the boat back to my marina.

    In 2009, the boat wouldn’t start due to a minor problem in the middle of the lake and the towing service showed up within 30 minutes for my free tow. Lake St. Clair is 25 miles across so the middle is quite a ways out.

    Moral of the story: When I realized that I could have purchased the towing insurance but before I found the mechanic and was thinking that I was literally up the river without a paddle, I didn’t blame or curse Hayek.

    And I now think my new towing service is the greatest thing since sliced bread.

  2. Bob Roddis says:

    Not that anyone is actually going to read my long-winded story, but 2005 (not 2006) was the year my dad explained the boat to me. So 2008 was my fourth boating season.

    Boating in Detroit is as good as in the Bahamas, except that it only lasts about 11 weeks.

  3. Daniel Hewitt says:

    Recently, many residents in Detroit had to stand on the street and watch fires spead to their homes, burning them down, because the fire department took hours to arrive. Where is Krugman’s outrage over this?


  4. Bob Roddis says:

    Coincidently, you can usually see the
    Detroit fires from my boat
    . The day of the mass burning last month, it was too windy to go boating. So, no boat pics of those fires.

    In 1967 when I was 16, my family took our boat to a cottage owned by some friends on an inland lake north of Detroit. While we were waterskiing all day, the friends’ grandma called. The Detroit Riot had started around the block from where she lived and she was trying to hose down her garage with the garden hose. The riot started because white cops had shut down and arrested black people at an after hours bar. We could not go into Detroit to rescue her because of a 24 hour curfew which went on for days. (You couldn’t even buy gas for the boat in a gas tank at a gas station out in the suburbs for a week). Somehow, the grandma and her house and garage survived the carnage.

    My grandparents moved to Detroit from Canada in 1912. My parents were born in Detroit and so was I. I became and Austrian in 1973. I’ve lived within a mile of the Detroit border my entire life so I know a little bit about it. Detroit has been bled dry by progressive anti-free market policies, including, but not limited to, the drug war, unionization on steroids, civil forfeiture, public schools, welfare, over-taxation and totally corrupt multi-bureaucratic overkill. Basically, there is not much of a free market or private property in Detroit.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that “progressives” simply hate poor people and must really really hate poor black people in order to inflict this system upon them. But I think that analysis is a bit too nuanced for the sophisticated “progressive” mind.

  5. von Pepe says:

    Bob, I’m pretty sure you just endorsed TARP.

    Moral Hazard

  6. von Pepe says:


    If your dad bought the backup motor in 1971 ($200?) and ‘saved’ approximately $54 a year until 2005 and he took shorter boat trips…he may have come out ahead.

    • Bob Roddis says:

      My dad bought the BIG BOAT in 1971 which had a Chevy V-8 inboard/outboard motor. He and my mom liked to troll for walleye. He used the small outboard for trolling and for emergencies. They usually went to the quite deserted and calm but far away Canadian side to fish (and they ALWAYS had Canadian licenses).

      I’m no fisherman. The boat was not used between 2000 and 2005 and by the time of the 2008 emergency, the gas in the outboard tank (just add oil to the gas) was 9 years old and the outboard wouldn‘t start. I didn’t blame Hayek for that problem either.

  7. Gene Callahan says:

    “If we actually had a free market…”

    Yes, except, as Mises often pointed out, the correct name for that is “the IMAGINARY construction of the pure free market.”

  8. Bob Roddis says:

    In a display of nuance, Salon.com expressly linked the concept of a fee-based government fire department to
    libertarianism and Hayek.

    As we have previously described, customer service would be verboten in Rothbardville.

    • Daniel Hewitt says:


      That may have been the dumbest article I have ever read. Certainly one of them. I only have myself to blame for clicking on an link that begins with “salon” and does not include “greenwald”.

  9. Leo says:

    This is unrelated, but I think we are starting to see the rise of Eco-Fascism…


    (It’s actually quite disturbing)

  10. von Pepe says:

    BTW, I honestly don’t think I would of switched private fire services if one of the services watched a house burn down.

    p.s. I am pretty sure that even if the fire department in this case had tried to put the fire out that the house would of been toast anyway. I saw the homeowner last night on TV. He has insurance and they have been great in their service ot the homeowner. Still, why didn’t the insurance company require he show his $75 reciept every year or have added a rider saying the insurance is void if he does not maintain the $75 annual service?

    • bobmurphy says:

      I was wondering that too (about fire insurance). I wonder if this is a new policy that people weren’t really aware of?

    • Bob Roddis says:

      Excellent question. Heck, why shouldn’t other taxpayers pay when you forget to pay your homeowners or car insurance and get cancelled? Otherwise, it’s so mean-spirited.

  11. Evan says:

    So a government-funded fire department letting a house burn down is supposed to be evidence of the failure of the free market?

    How Orwellian is that!?!

  12. Greg Ransom says:

    Isn’t this exactly what teachers do when they go on strike?

    • Aristos says:

      Not exactly. A teacher not noting the direct characterization in Of Mice and Men is not analogous to a firefighter not putting out a fire. I see your angle, but it doesn’t hold to scrutiny.

  13. Greg Ransom says:

    Teachers on strike — watching capital buildings waste and my childrens learning days waste, while they watch and demand more money and the firing of the young and energetic teachers.

  14. Gene Callahan says:

    “Last point: If we actually had a free market, with competing fire departments, there’s no way in the world this would have happened.”

    I agree, since Rome was actually in on Mars, wasn’t it?

    “Marcus Licinius Crassus was one of the ten most wealthy historical figures of all time. One of the ways he accumulated his wealth was by organizing one of the first fire brigades in history. When an area of Rome caught fire, Crassus firemen would arrive, not do anything, and would negotiate a price to pay for all the property threatened by the fire. The price would go down by the minute as the fire continued and consumed the buildings and property. Only when property owners agreed to sell at ‘fire sale’ prices would the 500 man brigade pull down burning structures and put out the fire. Through the use of his fire brigade Crassus became one of the largest property owners in Rome.”

    • bobmurphy says:

      Another thing Gene: I said that it would be a bad business decision to watch a house burn down, if there were competing fire departments.

      To blow me up, you pointed to a historical case where there was one fire department.

      And–what I failed to notice before–you pointed to a case where the private fire department DIDN’T watch the houses burn down. They bargained with the owners and then put out the fire.

      So I’m serious, Gene, please tell me what the flaw in my argument is? I didn’t say, “There’s no way anything remotely unseemly would occur in a privatized fire department market.”

      I said there is no way this absurd outcome–where a fire department watches a house burn down, even while the homeowner promises to pay anything–would happen in a free market.

      • Gene Callahan says:

        “To blow me up, you pointed to a historical case where there was one fire department.”

        There were no barriers to entry. A competitive market does not depend on the number of firms — even 0 can represent a competitive market. (See Vernon Smith in this regard.)

        “And–what I failed to notice before–you pointed to a case where the private fire department DIDN’T watch the houses burn down.”

        They would if you wouldn’t pay!

        • bobmurphy says:

          Gene, are you absolutely certain there were no barriers to entry? And I understand that “competitive” does not necessarily mean a large number of firms; see Hayek in this regard.

          Anyway, I am done arguing with you on this. If you go and re-read my post, and still think your example somehow blows me up, I don’t know what else to say.

  15. Gene Callahan says:

    “I agree, since Rome was actually in on Mars, wasn’t it?”

    Of course, that “in” wasn’t supposed to be there.

  16. Aristos says:

    Those who declined to pay for fire protection gamble upon the likelihood that they will not need fire protection. The homeowners made a reasonable choice. That their choice burned them (pun not intended but accepted nonetheless) is not to be laid upon the fire department’s feet.

  17. bobmurphy says:

    OK Gene, so you quote me saying “if we had a free market, with competing fire departments,” and then describe a situation where there was one fire department to show how stupid I am.

    Now it’s true, if that situation was a free market, and everyone else in Rome sat around for months while Crassus became one of the ten wealthiest men in human history, then I guess I’m stumped. But I’m guessing there was some sort of institutional barrier, like maybe Crassus had a patent on hoses.

    I fully grant that you know a lot more about history than I do, but can you see how, prima facie, that’s a little annoying–that you quote me talking about competing fire departments, and then blow me up with an example of a single fire department?

  18. RG says:

    Another leftover point of this situation:

    The fire department goes ahead and puts out the fire and then charges the family. I’m guessing you would have seen the same indiganation for their behavior.