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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.

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And although one can live just fine without consumer goods—nobody ever died for lack of an iPod—society as a whole suffers a lot of damage from less-than-ideal fire control. While hiring, or not being able to hire, a fire brigade was a private matter that accorded nicely with the principles of the free market, it was also a transaction that came with what economists call negative “externalities”: effects that a transaction between two parties can have on a third. In this case, those effects are fairly obvious: a fire that isn’t properly extinguished can spread rapidly to neighboring homes, potentially resulting in a disastrous conflagration that could consume the whole neighborhood. In Obion County, the firefighters who watched Cranick’s house burn down only responded to the fire once it had spread to the property of a neighbor who’d paid the fee.

Fiddling While Your House Burns

Firefighting is like many other goods that are vital to a healthy society but which the private sector isn’t suited to provide. That’s why the conservative rhetoric about “limited government” is only appealing in the abstract -- people really, reallylike living in a society with adequately funded public services. They like what government does in the specific, even if they have an inherent suspicion of the idea of “big government.”

Translated into the real world of politics and policy, limited government looks something like Arizona governor Jan Brewer’s response to her state’s fiscal crisis. Earlier this year, Brewer signed a budget that eliminated the Children’s Health Insurance Program, denying health care to 47,000 low-income kids in Arizona. She also proposed a hike in the state sales tax—the most regressive tax, whose burden falls disproportionately on working people.

Joining Arizona in eliminating health insurance for the poor was Tennessee, which cut 100,000 people from its Medicaid rolls, including 8,000 children. One of those people was Jessica Pipkin, who lost the use of her arms and legs in a car accident in 2005. Pipkin requires round-the-clock care—at $37 per hour—but was told she would lose her benefits because she and her husband earn too much to qualify. Are they rich? Well, her husband makes $19,000 as a satellite television repairman, and Pipkin receives another $14,000 in Social Security benefits.

In Minnesota, Governor Tim Pawlenty, a contender for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, submitted a budget that slashed funds from student aid, financial assistance to counties and municipalities, a job program for the blind and the mentally ill, low-income housing programs, mass transit in the Twin Cities, and a state insurance program that helps cover people with costly preexisting medical conditions. It was approved by a Democratically controlled legislature; lawmakers justified their budget by pointing out that they’d rejected Pawlenty’s proposals for deeper, even more painful cuts.

Clayton County, Georgia, a mostly African American suburb of Atlanta, eliminated its bus service into the city, leaving tens of thousands of Georgia’s working poor without a way of getting to their jobs. “I don’t know what I’m going to do,” a 57-year-old worker told the Los Angeles Times. “So many people here, they’re going to be sure enough messed up. We need this bus bad.” Oregon, Florida, New Jersey, and Maryland are also looking at deep cuts to public transportation systems to make up budget shortfalls.

Perhaps the most striking vision of the libertarian utopia comes from Ashtabula County, Ohio. It reduced the number of sheriff’s deputies patrolling the 720-square-mile county from 112 to 49 and cut the number of prisoners in detention from 140 to 30. More than 700 people were put “on a waiting list to serve time in the jail.” Some were facing relatively minor charges, but the list also included, according to Sheriff Billy Johnson, violent offenders. When a county judge was asked what citizens should do to protect their families “with the severe cutback in law enforcement,” he responded, “Arm themselves ... Be very careful, be vigilant, get in touch with your neighbors, because we’re going to have to look after each other.” A gun instructor told the local news station he agreed with the sentiment. “You don’t have any other option,” he said. “We don’t have the law enforcement out here to handle it right now.”

 
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