The social contract, laying in ashes
I’ve been thinking a lot about this situation where firefighters let a man’s house burn to the ground (killing multiple pets, which was what ended up really upsetting my soft heart at the end of day, since animals don’t know from the weird political loopholes that create situations like this) because he didn’t pay a $75 fee. What’s fascinating about this is how the blogosphere fell on the story, and also how predictable it was—liberals were outraged and conservatives were smug to downright gleeful. Everyone rationalized their reaction by treating this like a referendum on the morality of privatizing government. Right wingers thought it was an awesome display of their moral weight that they’d sooner let a man’s house burn to the ground than let him get a service for free, and liberals pointed out how morally bankrupt that is.
The one problem with it, which something Marc pointed out to me when we were talking about it?
This has nothing to do with libertarian “philosophy”, privatization, or any other right wing enthusiasm. In fact, if we’re talking strictly philosophical differences, liberals should be the ones pointing out that if you don’t pay taxes, services will not be rendered. This man’s house burning to the ground is a stark demonstration of what would happen to everyone if right wingers got their way and taxes became a thing of the past. And in general, liberals could point out that what happened to Gene Craddick and his family is an illustration of the problems that erupt when a bunch of Americans think they’re too good to obey the social contract, and build miles upon miles of exurbs with gated communities, gates that symbolically shield them from either having to rub shoulders with people they don’t consider Real Americans, or pay taxes so that we can all have public goods, like fire departments. Not that this is exactly what happened in this case—I’m not making any statements about Craddick’s political beliefs or why he lived in a place where you had to pay $75 a year so the fire department would haul so far out to put your house out. But as exurban, low tax areas grow, the kind of arrangement that led this horrible situation is probably going happen more and more. (And Obion County does seem to fit the profile.) Liberals could have used this situation to ask ourselves hard questions, like, “If people really are going to go out of their way to avoid paying into the tax base, shouldn’t their access to services be revoked? If one party opts out of the social contract, do the rest of us still have to take care of them?”
After all, the fire department in this case isn’t actually a privatized fire department. It’s a public one. For the areas it traditionally serves, the South Fulton Fire Department doesn’t require a $75 fee from residents, because they’re paid for out of taxes. The reason they serve anyone in the outlying Obion County areas is because South Fulton is actually being generous in allowing people to opt in for a fee. They do this even though the county actually looked at the possibility of creating a tax-funded fire department, and chose not to do so.
The county has declined to provide fire services for a long time, it’s been a lively issue for a long time, and they know perfectly well that local cities won’t always respond to their fires. Courtesy of the world wide web, for example, here’s “A Presentation Regarding The Establishment And Implementation of a County-Wide Fire Department,” dated March 18, 2008, describing exactly how fire services work in the County of Obion. Also included in this document: a plan to create an Obion County Fire Department by merging the services of the various municipal fire departments in the county along with a plan to raise about half a million dollars to fund it. Revenue would come from either a 0.13 cent property tax increase, a fee on electric meters, or a flat subscription fee.
The county commissioners of Obion County apparently decided against this plan. Didn’t want to increase taxes, I suppose. As a result, Gene Cranick’s house burned down.
The reason that refusing to raise your own fire department and instead relying on the generosity of your neighbors who do pay taxes is not a “libertarian” solution is because you’re basically leeching off people who do take responsibility as good citizens and kick in. The $75 annual fee is all good and well, but it relies on someone else actually putting the cash up front to have a fire department. So the complaints from right wingers about how people who actually pay taxes are “jerks, freeloaders, and ingrates” are exactly ass-backward. Right wingers who create massive tax shelters for themselves and then expect to opt in to what the taxpayers have built for a nominal fee that they can pretend is “libertarian”? They’re the ones not pulling their weight. I’m guessing in an area where a .13% property tax increase (that’s .13%, not 13%) is considered too onerous of a burden for the John Galts of Tennessee to pay, you have a lot of people who also think they’re too good to pay the $75 annual fee, expecting the fire department paid by non-Galt non-freeloaders (turned by the magic of Glenn Beck into the bad guys with their hands out) would help them anyway. No wonder the firefighters of South Fulton got fed up and decided to make an example out of someone. Gene Craddick appears to have been the perfect target for their ire, since he had already had one fire that they put out, even though he hadn’t paid his fee.
If we’re talking strictly philosophy, then this should be a situation where liberals are—like I’m basically doing—decrying the freeloading of those who basically claim they’re too good for taxes, but throw a shit fit when services aren’t provided. This situation is the ugly result of the attitude that leads a bunch of Medicare recipients to claim they oppose socialized welfare. Or how red states that have voted themselves low taxes get away with it because they get more than their fair share of the federal piggy. A bunch of wingnuts priding themselves on how “John Galt” they are requires a lot of financial indulgence from those of us who pay our taxes without complaint, because we actually remember that fire fighters, construction workers, and cops need to get paid.
Right wingers like to pretend that this is a good example of some perfect Ayn Rand utopia where even the fire department is privatized, but in reality, it would be costing WAY more than $75 a year to the white flighters to get in on a private fire department. This pittance fee is a yet another example of how the people who think they’re so self-sufficient are being subsidized by the people they hate and who they won’t help back. Sprawling exurbs that allow people to engage in both white flight and flight from higher taxes are only possible because they build on the infrastructure built up by the federal taxes that wingnuts protest and the city taxes that the white flighters think they’re too good to pay.
Despite the fact that this is a pitch-perfect example of why liberals are right, though, you find liberals are the ones who are upset about this and conservatives are far more likely to be basking in the pain of the Craddick family. Why is this?
My theory: because libertarianism is, as it always has been, nothing more but a pseudo-intellectual gloss painted on straight up assholery to make it seem shinier than it is.
I’ll add that if Gene Craddick had come out all full wingnut about this, indignant that the “liberal elite” refused to help him, conservatives probably would have defended him to the death. Instead, he chalked this up to an innocent mistake (the kind that actually having a more traditional tax structure would have made impossible), and so they felt good about being vicious assholes about his monumental loss. I just hope the county takes this as a lesson, passes their teeny-weeny tax raise, and gets some firefighters so this doesn’t happen to anyone else.