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Ayn Rand Conservatism at Work -- Firefighters Let Family's House Burn Down Because Owner Didn't Pay $75 Fee

Talk of limited government is appealing until you see what it actually means in practice: a society in which it's every man for himself.

Thanks to 30 years of right-wing demagoguery about the evils of “collectivism” and the perfidy of “big government” -- and a bruising recession that’s devastated state and local budgets -- we’re getting a peek at a dystopian nightmare that may be in our not-too-distant future. It’s a picture of a society in which “rugged individualism” run amok means every man for himself.

Call it Ayn Rand’s stark, anti-governmental dream come true, a vision that last week turned into a nightmare for Gene Cranick, a rurual homeowner in Obion County, Tennessee. Cranick hadn’t forked over $75 for the subscription fire protection service offered to the county’s rural residents, so when firefighters came out to the scene, they just stood there, with their equipment on the trucks, while Cranick’s house burned to the ground. According to the local NBC TV affiliate, Cranick “said he offered to pay whatever it would take for firefighters to put out the flames, but was told it was too late. They wouldn't do anything to stop his house from burning.”

The fire chief could have made an exception on the spot, but refused to do so. Pressed by the local NBC news team for an explanation, Mayor David Crocker said, “if homeowners don't pay, they're out of luck.”

Ironically, Obion County describes itself as a “progressive community.” In a recent report ( PDF), town officials wrote:

We continue to recruit new industry .... We’re building new roads and new schools and making improvements in health care, law enforcement and tourism. The implementation of a Regional Airport, the construction of the I-69 corridor through Obion County and improvements to our local infrastructure reflect the commitment of our county commissioner and municipal officials.

But last December, a county commission on which every member is a Republican voted to rescind a resolution passed years earlier that would have established a countywide fire department. Their rationale was, of course, the need to keep taxes low, but according to the county commission report, that decision was penny wise but pound foolish. “Because there is no operational county fire department,” the officials noted, “Obion County has missed the opportunity to actively pursue receipt of FEMA Assistance to Firefighters Grants (AFG) and Community Development Block Grants (CDBG), which could amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars of funding.”

Firefighting is perhaps the most frequently cited example of a good that the private sector simply isn’t suited to provide. We now deem the task of putting out fires a “public good” -- something individuals can’t decide to forgo without the potential of hurting others. But as I note in my new book, The Fifteen Biggest Lies About the Economy, it wasn’t always so. In the early years of our Republic, in cities like Boston and New York, small, privately operated fire brigades vied for property-owners’ business. You’d pay a small fee, and they’d give you a placard to hang on your door identifying you as a client. If a fire did break out, the company would—in theory, anyway—come and douse the flames.

It was a libertarian wet dream, but it was utterly disastrous. Sometimes, several fires broke out simultaneously. Small, independent fire companies could respond to only one or two at a time—they were constrained by their own limited personnel and equipment. It wasn’t profitable to maintain the capacity to deal with a rare occurrence like multiple fires breaking out at once; if a fire company did devote the resources necessary to maintain that capacity, it would then be at a competitive disadvantage with its rivals. That’s why in the modern world, if a massive fire breaks out, fire companies from across a municipality can respond together, specifically because they’re notin competition.

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