Mandates and Moral Calculus

Here's an interesting, if tragic, story  in which a local fire department stood around and watched as a citizen's house burned to the ground, because the citizen had not paid fire protection. It's worth checking out Jonathan Cohn's post on this:

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 to pay for fire protection is another.

I'm always intrigued by libertarian arguments, as I'm a firm believer in recognizing the importance of individual agency. I'm less convinced that people, left unfettered, won't eventually do something really catastrophic--if not to themselves, then to the broader society. (As fatalist as this sounds, I'm still not 100 percent sure we shouldn't let that play out, too.) What I see in Jon Cohn's piece is rather fascinating and, for me, viscerally repellent--not only are we ignorant, but we are prone to understating our ignorance and doing ourselves, and others, grievous harm.

It does feel paternalistic, because I think we all like to think that we know best. Or maybe we like to think that we will live and die by our own individual decisions. I don't know. But reading this, oddly enough, has helped me better understand the critique of surrendering liberty for the good of the whole, and perhaps ourselves. It doesn't mean the critique is correct, but it's an interesting problem to turn over.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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