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Firefighters and Libertarians

October 7, 2010 1 comment

Hello blog and blog readers, its been a while. How are you? I’m great, thanks for asking. I kind of forgot about this place over the summer, and have fulfilled my need to add my voice to the swirling vortex of trollery that is the internet in other ways. But once again I’ve found the combination of facebook, twitter, and various comment sections to be too restrictive.

This time, it’s the story about the Tennessee fire department that refused to put out a fire at a man’s house because he didn’t pay his fire protection subscription (about $75 a year). I believe the original article appeared in Salon. A key part of the story is that the man whose house was on fire offered “any amount” of money while his house was burning for the firefighters to put it out, and the fire department still refused to act.

I have a fairly wide range of blogs in my google reader queue, from right-ish econ blogs to fairly left leaning ones like Pharyngula and BoingBoing. I’m not masochistic enough to subject myself to the likes of The Daily Kos or Town Hall, but I’d say I get a decent view of the politics of the blogosphere as a whole. Like you’d expect, the lefty blogs have been all over this. And the message, in both their posts and their comment sections, has been about what you’d expect: “haha this is what your conservative/libertarian utopia would look like, my beliefs sure were validated there”. None have been quite as overtly hostile toward the libertarian view as the original article, but most have had the same tone.

What I find interesting is how well this story illustrates our vulnerability to confirmation bias, and how much nuance the liberal commentators have missed. First, the obvious: this is as much an indictment of statist inclinations as it is of libertarian ones. As David Henderson explains over at Econlog, it was a government run fire department. His conclusion is pretty clear, and I haven’t seen it addressed or even mentioned on most other blogs:

So let’s see now: Libertarians tend to advocate that government not be in the business of providing fire protection because we think that people should be free to contract with whoever they want to contract with and, as a side benefit, they will get better protection at a lower cost. If someone could show us that this works badly, we would look at that case. But it’s bizarre for a statist to attack libertarians when his own statist alternative works out badly.

Furthermore, the way the fire department acted was inefficient from a private business standpoint; there is absolutely no reason a privately owned fire department should refuse large amounts of money to put out a fire at a non-payer’s house. As Henderson points out, most equivalent private insurance schemes charge punitively large fees for non-subscribers. Low enough that the customer would rather pay than have his house burn down, high enough to discourage people from waiting until something bad happens to pay. Liberals often complain about capitalism’s obsessive focus on efficiency, but here is a good example of private efficiency trumping public rule systems. See, the firefighters couldn’t take the man’s money; they’d need approval from their bosses, who are probably under instruction (from the state, by the way) to deny their services to non-payers. That’s inefficient, and also harmful. So a good lesson to take away from this is that private enterprise can be coldly focused on efficiency, but it’s often better than bureaucracy, the only real alternative, which is only focused on following whatever rules are handed down to them, regardless of the sense or reason behind them. But I think there’s a deeper, if similar, lesson here that illustrates a fundamental misunderstanding of libertarianism by the left. However, this post is pushing 650 words and getting into tl;dr territory, so that will have to wait for another time.

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