Letting It Burn

The story of a home burning to the ground because the owner wasn't up to date on his fire protection payments has been picked up by an obscene number of blogs. Here's the lesson Ezra draws:

The South Fulton Fire Department was right to let the Cranicks’ house burn. You can’t sell fire insurance but let people pay after the flames have begun. If you do, people will sign up after their houses catch on fire, rather than before. That’s a bad business.

Which is why we don’t generally run firefighting as an insurance business (this, actually, was a weird case where a city’s fire service sold protection in a rural area outside the city’s limits). We run it as a collective good. People have to pay, and firefighters never let someone’s house burn. We’re comfortable letting people make bad financial decisions when it comes to their television purchases, or the car they drive, or whom they date. We’re not willing to do it when the consequence is that they and their children quite literally die in a fire. But that’s what free-market firefighting would require.

Reihan dissents. Tyler Cowen looks at the wreckage from a different vantage 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. 

Social systems proceed by (usually) covering up the brutalities upon which they are based.  The doctor doesn't let you get to his door and then turn you away, rather his home address is hard to find.  The government handcuffs you so they don't have to shoot you trying to escape.  And so on.

And Ozimek doesn't think that this incident discredits libertarianism.