So a group of firefighters let a house burn down in a county in Tennessee. Horrible, right? Yes, but not necessarily for the obvious reasons. In this case, the firefighters let the house burn down because the the home owner had not paid the protection fee. Why was he expected to pay a fee rather than jsut get the service as a taxpayer? Because the county has refused to staff a fire department. As a result, the little towns in the county provide fire service to the rural county, for a small fee. The problem is that approximately 75% of the fire calls to those services are in the county. And when the fire department tries to collect for the costs of going to put out fires, they are stiffed more than fifty percent of the time. So the citizens of the cities are paying for fire protection for people who refuse to contribute the common good. So, inevitably, they were forced to make a choice: enforce the penalty for opting out of the community or continue to pay higher and higher costs to protect those who refuse to be fully paid up members of society.
Fire fighting — like all government services — costs money. Firetrucks need to be purchased. 911 systems need to be staffed. Alarm systems need to be maintained. Firefighters need to be clothed, housed and fed while on duty. None of that can exist without money — money that the residents of the county have refused to supply as a community and only sporadically as individuals. So the choice is clear: let people freeload on the taxpayers of the municipalities that do support fire departments and eventually ruin their budgets or let houses burn to the ground. It is, in other words, the perfect libertarian world.
Letting houses burn to the ground is the only result acceptable to a libertarian. If you do not let the house burn to the ground, then you encourage free loading, which eventually bankrupts the fire department or the people who are willing to support the fire department. And when we replace the notion of community and collective action for the good of the community, then we are left with the libertarian schemes that require firefighters to stand by and watch homes burn.
Some of you may think that is just fine, that the man got what he deserved. I would argue that that is immoral — that putting out fires is a community responsibility best shared by the community. In this scheme, a person who is poor or down on their luck might lose everything because they could not pay the flat fee for the protection. Someone just might forget, or have the paperwork lost. It is not just to allow someone to lose their home or life to that kind of mistake if the damage from that mistake can be reasonable mitigated.
If morality doesn’t sway you, then remember that the fire was eventually put out when it spread to the lawn of a neighbor, a neighbor who had paid for the fire protection. So the man’s mistake did damage to his neighbors and the community at large. The only libertarian response is to have the neighbor sue the man. And I am sure that the neighbor will be able to recoup the damages from a person whose house has just been burned to the ground. The destitute are well known for honoring civil judgments.
This fire is a the result of libertarian land. In libertarian land, collective action is forbidden so taxes cannot pay for fire departments. Without taxes, you must rely on the voluntary subscription to services (or after the fact fees, but for something like firefighting that requires a large and constant maintenance cost, after the fact fees aren’t going to be enough to keep a fire department active). If you must rely on a voluntary subscription service, then you must discourage free loaders. If you must discourage free loaders, then you must let the homes of the poor, or unlucky or plan stupid burn to the ground. And if you must let the homes of the poor, the unlucky and the plain stupid burn down, inevitably you will have situations where the fire spreads and damages the property of other people, people who wont be able to recover their damages because their neighbor has probably just watched their largest asset go up in smoke. Damage to the innocent — even in the horrible way that libertarians define innocent — is the inevitable result of libertarian policies.
When you think of the future that Rand Paul and Sharon Angle and Paul Ryan want, think of fire fighters watching houses burn to the ground and fires spreading to the homes of the innocent. Forever.