I can’t recall which Michael Moore movie it was wherein he made an argument, which seemed quite sound and likely to be persuasive even to people who weren’t on the left, that taking care of other people was also a matter of self-interest, rather in the way that we rely on fire departments. We do not have to pay on a per-fire basis for their services, nor are their services up for bidding.
At least not for most of us: apparently, the folks in Obion County, Kentucky are in the grip of some serious Tea Party madness. Yep: someone didn’t pay the fire department fee, and the fire department simply let his house burn to the ground. Here, in the USA, the pinnacle of civilization.
I suppose some free-marketeers are going to argue, well, that’s too bad, but after all, the guy did make the choice to not pay that fee – and so, of course the fire department was under no obligation to put out the fire at his house. Aside from the rather incredible moral obtuseness of such a position – fortunately, it appears, no one was harmed in this fire appallingly, the firefighters just sat by and let the family’s pets die a horrific death – this simply makes no kind of logical sense. (It’s also, as my friend Brian points out, dubious whether this would actually be a “choice” for poorer citizens.)
First, given that in such emergencies time is a very valuable quantity, even for folks who’ve paid their fees, the delay inherent in needing to verify whether they’ve done so could well mean the difference between life and death.
More to the point, fires neither know nor care who’s paid and who hasn’t, and are likely to spread from one house to the next. A fire department that refuses to put out a non-subscriber’s fire is all but guaranteeing that the subscribing neighbor’s house will catch fire.
Another irony is that the “capitalist” government of Obion County, Kentucky, will surely lose more from the removal by fire of this house from its property tax rolls than it would have cost it to put out the fire even in the absence of the required fees. So there’s plenty of stupid to go around here.
And in the long run, the notion that it’s somehow a better exemplification of a free market to disband “socialist” fire departments and let every homeowner buy fire service is defeated by the very logic of the free market. “Property rights” and property values are, after all, a common rallying cry of the free-marketeers…but what do you think happens to the property value of a house adjacent to the home of a non-subscriber? It diminishes, of course – just as it would if the adjacent property were a crack house, decrepit, or otherwise unsightly or unappealing. People have been sued over failure to maintain property, often on grounds that such failure reduces neighbors’ property values…so of course, it would make perfect sense for the non-subscriber’s neighbors to sue him for decreasing their own property values.
But wait a minute: now these folks are going into the court system to defend their own property rights by demanding that someone else subscribe to the fire service? Goddamned socialistic court system – in fact, what’s all this about property values being influenced by someone else’s property? I’m an individual: my property’s worth what it’s worth without regard to anyone else’s property values! Or could it be that the housing market is…socialist? Must be – if by “socialist” we mean that the actions and values of others have impact on our own, which seems to be what your Tea Party types mean by the term.
In his review for Harper’s (October 2010) of the late Tony Judt’s most recent book Ill Fares the Land, Terry Eagleton notes that the obscene extent of market-valued “material self-interest” has, in the last thirty years or so, utterly overtaken the previously common, relatively benign view of collective action (including that of government), even among administrations typically regarded as conservative. And that is because, Eagleton implies, even they were smart enough to recognize that the market itself depends upon a degree of collective social engagement:
Market societies are at risk of destroying the very resources they need for their own reproduction. By measuring everything by the yardstick of profit, they neglect some of the human needs and capacities they must nurture in order to stay in business. Economic life, for example, depends on trust, which in such social orders is likely to be in short supply. Men and women need to feel valued if they are to be productive, which is scarcely the case with those at the bottom of the heap. They are unlikely to flourish without some sense of stable identity and robust community, both of which are continually under threat in the volatile world of advanced capitalism. Once the state hands over its functions of care (social benefits, unemployment pay, and so on) to private agencies, nothing remains to bind the citizen to the state but the fear of authority….
The upshot of all this is that market societies are plunged sooner or later into a crisis of legitimation. Authority and obedience, as Edmund Burke [of all people] warned long ago, are too fragile a bond to hold social orders together for very long. We may fear the law, but we do not love it…. [O]nce we abandon the public for the private, there is scant reason why we should value law (“the public good par excellence”) over force. The problem with market societies is that they…rely…on the self-interest of their subjects. But self-interest is a notoriously faithless, fickle affair. It may inspire you to kick someone in the teeth as much as vote him into power.
Or to let someone’s house burn to the ground, just because he hasn’t paid $75 a year. The article on this fire notes that some fighting broke out between the non-subscribers’ neighbors and the firefighter: no surprise there (the neighbors seem to understand that fires tend not to localize). Expect worse, of course: expect well-armed homeowners (Second Amendment, y’all) to respond to firefighters’ refusal to extinguish their fires to fight firefighters with firearms; expect reprisals in the form of arson; expect blackmail and other illicit shenanigans on threat of increased payment; etc. What’s to stop them? Simple human decency? Pretty obviously, if a firefighter can stand there and watch someone’s house burn down due to the lack of a $75 annual fee, that’s not a factor anymore.
Hurrah capitalism. All hail the free market. Sometimes “free” is a synonym for “worthless.”