This post was coauthored by Jered Piepenbrink and Alex Schibuola.
On October 3, a home burned to the ground in Obion County, Tennessee, though it was easily preventable. This story became national news when it was reported that the South Fulton Fire Department refused to extinguish the fire because the homeowner, Gene Cranick, failed to pay a $75 fee. The department only acted when the lawn of a neighbor, who paid the fee, ignited. Soon after, liberals denounced profit-seeking, private fire departments. Conservatives argued that the (former) homeowner will be sure to pay his fees now. The firefighters were not criticized because they were only following the law.
No critics, to my knowledge, produced an accurate assessment of the situation. When criticizing free markets, a good rule of thumb is to determine whether a free market even existed in the first place. Is the tragedy a result of a government policy or greedy profiteers? The answer is clear. The fire department was a government monopoly that was funded by voluntary fees, not involuntary taxes. In a free market, the department would have competitors and would not be constrained by government legislation. How would a private fire department with competitors benefit from allowing a home to burn when competitors can step in and make an offer? All the owner need say is “put out the fire and send me the bill.”
The conservative rebuttal is equally poor because it sanctions this local government’s awful policy of not assisting people who have not paid. Cranick was willing to pay right then and there (I’m sure his homeowner’s insurance would gladly offered to pay too), but his offer was rejected because he did not follow the defined-bureaucratic procedures. The South Fulton firefighters’ actions are unsettling. Any group with the means to prevent a tragedy with all costs covered (Cranick was willing to pay after all) but does not act because of its bureaucratic interpretation of a government law should have broken that law.