EconLog | David Henderson | Bizarre Salon Attack on LibertariansHenderson isn't reading between the lines here. Pareene is being very explicit that he is criticizing libertarians and markets. It's not subtle, either. The images published at the top of his post are a stock photo of a burning house and a portrait of Hayek. There's also a cheap shot about libertarians all being on drugs, which was something I actually thought Salon would like.
Alex Pareene, at Salon, has a bizarre attack on libertarians. He titles it "For-Pay Fire Department Lets Man's House Burn." He refers to a story about a man who failed to pay an annual fee for fire protection and then, when his house caught on fire and he called the fire department, the fire department refused to show up. [...]
It turns out, though, that the fire department in Tennessee was not a private for-profit fire department. It was a government-run fire department. You read that right: the fire department that refused to show up and refused to name a price at which it would show up was run by the government of South Fulton.This is indeed pretty bizarre. I've seen it before though. Check out two previous posts I wrote about people using a denial of coverage from the state-run Oregon Health Plan as evidence of how greedy and callous capitalist insurance companies are.
So let's see now: Libertarians tend to advocate that government not be in the business of providing fire protection because we think that people should be free to contract with whoever they want to contract with and, as a side benefit, they will get better protection at a lower cost. If someone could show us that this works badly, we would look at that case. But it's bizarre for a statist to attack libertarians when his own statist alternative works out badly. That's exactly what Alex Pareene and many of his commenters did. What's next: blaming libertarians because TSA is taking x-rays of people? Or blaming libertarians because the government is so vicious in the drug war? Or blaming libertarians because government schools are so lousy?
* Marcus Licinius Crassus notoriously made much of his fortune from buying burning buildings at ... erm ... firesale prices and then using his client-workers to put them out.
* Henderson is also right that at some price the FD should have been willing to intervene. You'd want something punitively higher to avoid free-riders, just the way you pay a $50 penalty if you're caught on a Roman bus not having paid the $1 ticket price.
* See also Tyler Cowen for a broader point:
Any social system must, at some stage of interactions, impose some morally unacceptable penalties. If you are very hungry, and you shoplift food, they still might prosecute you. If you don't pay your taxes, and resist wage garnishes, they might put you in jail. If you resist arrest, they might, at some point in the chain of events, shoot you while trying to escape. Somewhere along the line there is a doctor who can treat your rare disease except he doesn't feel like working so much, and so he lets you die or suffer; you can find both private and public sector examples here.This relates back to Kevin Williamson line from a couple weeks back: "If you’re not willing to have somebody hauled off at gunpoint over the project, then it’s probably not a legitimate concern of the state."
* Speaking of Williamson, he provides some valuable context:
The city of South Fulton’s fire department, until a few years ago, would not respond to any fires outside of the city limits — which is to say, the city limited its jurisdiction to the city itself, and to city taxpayers. A reasonable position. Then, a few years ago, a fire broke out in a rural area that was not covered by the city fire department, and the city authorities felt bad about not being able to do anything to help. So they began to offer an opt-in service, for the very reasonable price of $75 a year. Which is to say: They greatly expanded the range of services they offer. The rural homeowners were, collectively, better off, rather than worse off. Before the opt-in program, they had no access to a fire department. Now they do.* Arnold Kling on the thinking a statist fundamentalist might use conclude this is a market failure even if they know this was a state-run fire department.