Would You Let This House Burn?

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JONATHAN COHN OCTOBER 5, 2010

Would You Let This House Burn?

This sounds like a seminar topic from my college class in moral reasoning. But the story is real, as are the consequences for a Tennessee man named Gene Cranick, whose house caught fire last week. Via Joshua Holland at Alternet:

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.”

The story has generated an interesting debate among conservatives over at the National Review online. Daniel Foster wrote about it, suggesting "this is bad for libertarians." While he has no problem with systems that allow people, particularly in rural areas, to opt into public services voluntarily, he questions the moral reasoning of declining to put out the blaze, with the firefighters standing there and the homeowner offering to pay "whatever it would take."

That prompted two responses, one from fellow National Review staffer Kevin Williamson, taking the side of the city officials (who wrote and stand by the policy) and the fire fighters. As the argument goes, Cranick lives in a place where there is no guarantee of fire protection and, when offered a chance to buy fire protection, he declined. That's his responsibility and his alone. Had the fire fighters put out the fire anyway, they would have made the pay requirement meaningless. (I'm partly paraphrasing Foster's paraphrasing here, so forgive me if I've misinterpreted.)

I really don't know enough about the specifics of this story to address it authoritatively, other than to share the general sense of shock that Foster seems to feel. (The fire fighters stood there and let the house burn? Really?) But I also understand the libertarian argument and think this story exemplifies the problems of applying that theory to other issues. Yes, I'm thinking primarily of health care reform.

Fire protection is usually compulsory. You pay for it with your taxes, just like you pay for police protection, a national defense, and Social Security. But in rural areas, apparently, some people who could pay for fire protection don't--in the same way that some people who could buy health insurance today don't. The trouble with this arrangement is that some people who decline protection will need it. 

Foster (who, by the way, is a really interesting writer I just discovered a few weeks ago) says that the firefighters should have accepted the offer for payment, on the spot, and doused the flame. I'd go a bit farther than that. To me this is a classic case for requiring payment up front--that is, an individual mandate. People shouldn't have the option to decline fire protection if protection is available. If they refuse to pay the fees, assuming they are reasonable relative to their means, they should be subject to financial penalties. The same goes for health insurance. Don't let people go without basic coverage, but make them pay for it, to whatever extent their income allows.

Does that make me a little paternalistic? You bet. And I'm ok with that.

We all make really poor decisions sometimes. And while I think suffering the consequences of those decisions is generally a good thing, or at least a necessary thing, some consequences strike me as too extreme.

Losing your life savings (or your life!) because you declined health insurance is one such consequence. Losing your house because you declined fire protection is another.

h/t Mike Tomasky

Update: As is often the case, Think Progress was all over this story a good day before I was, including links to more National Review comments than I'd seen originally. And in case you were wondering, financing fire protection for the entire city would mean raising property taxes by 13 cents. (I originally wrote 0.13 cents--my mistake.)

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posted in: jonathan cohn, politics, gene cranick

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