Obion County, Tennessee homeowner Gene Cranick called the fire department of nearby South Fulton when his house caught fire last week, but the hadn’t paid the $75 subscription fee that allows county residents to use city fire services. Consequently, firefighters watched as his home burned to the ground, only interceding when the flames spread to the yard of Cranick’s neighbor, who had paid his fire subscription. Props to Bag-‘Em Ben Gabriel for the link.
Besides the recognition that the South Fulton Fire Department contains some real hardasses, three things leap to mind here:
1) This is why we have taxes. According to the WPSD report—which, incidentally, devolves into hilariously colloquial style in the last paragraph—Cranick offered to pay his subscription fee on site, but the fire chief refused. His behavior was weirdly necessary, since if the SFFD allowed county subscribers to pay their fee at the time of service, nobody would cough up the 75 bucks until his house was burning down.
Still, Cranick’s assumption that his home probably wouldn’t catch on fire reveals a fundamental problem of human judgment, by which every precaution seems like an unnecessary expense until something tragic happens. Why should I pay for a police department when nobody ever tries to mug me? It’s a reasonable position on an individual level, but when everybody in a society takes it, it’s disastrous. That’s why we introduce an element of coercion; the state requires us to pay for a fire department because we’re too dumb to do it ourselves.
2) Capitalism, based as it is on demand, breaks down when someone absolutely must purchase a good or service at a particular time. Conceivably, the South Fulton fire chief could have told Gene Cranick that he would extinguish his house for $50,000, and Cranick would have paid it. I assume the SFFD is not a for-proift enterprise, and the $75 subscription fee doesn’t much exceed their expenses. One can easily imagine the chaos that would ensue if the fire department were privatized, and fire fighters were allowed to negotiate prices with homeowners while their houses were burning down.
If you are having a hard time imagining that, I direct you to a useful alternative: the hour or so I spent in the billing office of my orthopedist three years ago with a badly broken right hand. I was fully insured, although my policy still made me liable for the first $2,000 plus 20%. No one would tell me how much the surgery to fix it would cost until after I got the procedure. All they told me was that if I didn’t have it done, I would be permanently crippled. The surgery wound up costing $23,000, plus ten grand or so in hospital fees and anesthetic and $80 Tylenols and whatnot. Both my surgeon and Lennox Hill Hospitals made a ton of money, and I spent my savings. What else could I do?
3) This story—the Cranick fire, not my hand—has been making the rounds of the internet as an example of exceptional venality. If Gene Cranick had needed brain surgery that he couldn’t get because he didn’t have health insurance, nobody would have ever heard of him. But hey, at least his house didn’t fall to socialism.