Last week, firefighters in rural Tennessee stood by and let a man’s house burn to the ground because the homeowner had neglected to pay the $75 fee for opt-in fire emergency service.
Homeowner Gene Cranick and his family lost all their possessions as well as their three pets in the blaze. Though firefighters were at the scene to battle the fire on neighboring property, they refused to put out the fire on the Cranicks' property. The mayor of the South Fulton (which is the closest city to the Cranick’s rural home) cited moral hazard as the reason why firefighters could not help the man once the fire had already begun:
"Anybody that's not inside the city limits of South Fulton, it's a service we offer. Either they accept it or they don't," said South Fulton Mayor David Crocker….[He] said that the fire department can't let homeowners pay the fee on the spot, because the only people who would pay would be those whose homes are on fire.
Daniel Foster has a great discussion about the story over at The Corner. “This is bad for the libertarians,” Foster says.
I have no problem with this kind of opt-in government in principle — especially in rural areas where individual need for government services and available infrastructure vary so widely. But forget the politics: what moral theory allows these firefighters (admittedly acting under orders) to watch this house burn to the ground when 1) they have already responded to the scene; 2) they have the means to stop it ready at hand; 3) they have a reasonable expectation to be compensated for their trouble?
…I’m a conservative with fairly libertarian leanings, but this is a kind of government for which I would not sign up.
The pressing questions: What should the firefighters have done in this scenario? Is this story evidence of the inherent failures of libertarianism? And lastly, for which type of services is opt-in government appropriate?