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The Fire Department Watches as Home Burns. Did We Learn Anything About Libertarianism?

The story of an unfortunate guy who didn't pay his $75 fire department fee has libertarians doing some soul-searching.

In rural Obion County, Tennessee, the local fire department operates with a subscription model. You pay $75 each year if you want to opt in. Gene Cranick decided not to pay. When his house caught fire last week the fire department refused to come put it out.

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From WPSD:

The homeowner, Gene 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.

Each year, Obion County residents must pay $75 if they want fire protection from the city of South Fulton. But the Cranicks did not pay.

The mayor said if homeowners don't pay, they're out of luck.

This fire went on for hours because garden hoses just wouldn't put it out. It wasn't until that fire spread to a neighbor's property, that anyone would respond.

Turns out, the neighbor had paid the fee.

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It's like an Onion story (actually, it's like this Onion story) but sadder, obviously, because it's not a joke. Over at the National Review online, Daniel Foster, a "conservative with fairy libertarian leanings" is trying to figure out what this story means for his worldview.

Foster acknowledges that with an opt-in system there need to be consequences for opting out, but this case is different, he says, because "Mr. Cranick ... wasn’t offering to pay the $75 fee. He was offering to pay whatever it cost to put out the fire."

Sure, they could have put out the fire when Cranick offered to pay "whatever it takes," but as I see it, according to the libertarian, the fire department still wouldn't have any obligation to. And we certainly don't want a system in which the fire department is regularly negotiating the cost of its services with individual homeowners while their houses burn, dealing with people who promise to pay "whatever it takes" but can't, or having to shut down during a good year because it's paid on a fire-by-fire basis.

I think it's pretty simple: If you're a libertarian, then there's nothing to complain about. This whole thing went exactly according to theory. Big government doesn't force you to pay for a bloated fire department. If you decide not to, then when your house catches fire, you try to save it yourself with a garden hose. It's tragic and makes everyone involved—mayor, fire department, and homeowner—look stupid.

Here's the other tragedy, though: This is an especially vivid example of why we should chip in for public services because it involves a conflagration and physical destruction. But we badly need to learn the same lessons in other areas—education, for example—where the consequences of eroding public services manifest slowly and don't end up on the news.

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