Published: 2010-10-06

Beyond the Emotional Reaction

Note: This was originally posted to my Tumblr blog 6 Oct 2010.

Earlier today I discussed the house in Tennessee that was allowed to burn down because the owners hadn't paid their $75 fire-protection fee with some people on Facebook.

I think it is natural to be disgusted at first by the headline. It is even reasonable to wonder why none of the firefighters disobeyed orders (in fact, I'm a bit surprised by this). However, I think it is important to strip away the emotional responses and take a closer look at this from a logical standpoint. Below are some excerpts from my posts on the subject. I've tried to clip them so as to remove the context of the debate. Honestly, I just didn't feel like re-wording so much text just to post it here.

Honestly, I don't feel terrible for the guy. He didn't pay the fee, he doesn't get the service. It isn't like his tax dollars were supporting the fire department, he didn't live in the town they were from: hence the fee.

Couple caveats though:

1) was the family told explicitly that firefighters would absolutely not do anything to help them if they didn't pay the fee? If not, the city should probably start alerting people to that important fact. Honestly it would probably increase the rate of payment, win-win.

2) Does the department receive any funding from the state or federal government? If so they shouldn't be allowed to turn people down like this since it negates the taxes issues to a certain extent.

3) Why not put out the fire then send the family a bill for the cost? That practice is common with ambulances. They'll treat you and take you to the hospital, but you get a bill later on (many municipalities pay these bills for residents). But they don't just let you die.

Basically, I suspect the fire department could have handled the situation better, but overall it was the homeowners' responsibility to protect their property.

Seriously, this event raises some interesting questions. For example, when raising children, at some point you have to discipline them. My parents always said spanking me hurt them more than it hurt me but it was good for me so they did it anyway and I suspect that I benefited from it in the long run.

Doesn't something similar operate on a social level, at least to certain point? I'm not saying that the government needs to metaphorically spank people, but as a general principle don't there need to be potential consequences for engaging in risky behavior?

Assuming none of my caveats (see comment above) apply, wouldn't putting out the fire have been just another example of "privatizing the profits and socializing the costs" that so many people (myself included) complained about during the banking bailout?

The family gets to keep their $75 (who knows how many years they had gone without paying) while other families paid. Then the families who paid (plus the taxpayers in the town the firefighters came from) get to pay to clean up the mess when the family loses their "bet".

Even if they paid the $75 after the fact, they could potentially go years without paying then pay once they need the service, essentially pocketing years' worth of fees in the process and avoiding paying to put out fires at their neighbors' houses.

This is a classic moral hazard problem. If you provide coverage for everyone even if they don't pay the fee then far fewer people will pay the fee over time.

This is another example of people wanting to have their cake and eat it too: it is acceptable for the government to spend citizens' money and risk lives for the benefit of a non-contributing individual in this case, but bailing out a bank or fighting a war to benefit certain private individuals is wrong.

I'm not saying those things are necessarily directly comparable. I'm just saying that the government needs to operate on principles that can be applied without subjective exceptions.

In other words, if your vision for public policy would require someone to stop by your house and ask you what you think about everything then it isn't good public policy. Good public policy should be built on a static (slowly changing, really) set of principles that can then be used to deal with a huge range of situations.

For example, how many people would feel differently on this issue if it were Bill Gates who had shirked the fee and whose house had burned down? How many people would feel differently if it had been a Wal-Mart on fire and the company had elected to forgo paying the fire-protection fee? Wal-Mart is ultimately owned by individuals just like Bill Gates owns his house and this family owned theirs.

From a larger public policy standpoint, the government must be given guidelines that are clear and objective. Otherwise we end up with bad interpretations down the line (like "it's OK to hand over billions to crooked bankers").

The outcomes may be unfortunate sometimes but the goal of good government is worth a bad outcome here and there.