Thursday, October 7, 2010

What taxes are for

In the unincorporated sections of Obion County, Tennessee, residents must pay a $75 annual fee if they want to receive fire department services from the City of South Fulton Fire Department.  The Cranick family forgot to subscribe for fire protection services last year, and as a result, the Fire Department watched their house burn to the ground, even as Mr. Cranick begged for help and offered to pay the fee on the spot.

Conservative pundits (like Glenn Beck) seem to have no trouble defending this practice.  They cannot bring themselves to admit that the much simpler expedient of taxing county residents for fire protection services would be more efficient, more productive, and more humane.  Apparently it is more important to stick to their anti-tax principles and insist that the Cranick family be punished for their negligence, than it is to prevent their house from burning down.

These new zealots of free market orthodoxy sound like Ptolomyic astronomers trying to explain the convoluted movement of the planets within a system in which the sun revolves around the earth, because they are unwilling to acknowledge the much simpler explanation that in fact the earth revolves around the sun.  You want to shake them up and say, did you not see that family's house burn down?  How can you justify a system that allows that kind of waste, which could easily have been prevented by a small tax levy sufficient to fund adequate services for the entire county?  (not to mention that adding a sufficient amount for fire protection to residents' tax bills is a lot more efficient than soliciting voluntary contributions for those services, and keeping track of who paid and whose houses should be allowed to burn down)

It's one thing to oppose expanding health care coverage to everyone, or enacting new financial regulations.  I understand that some people do not want to create new government programs.  But the current leaders of the backlash go further than that.  To be consistent, they feel the need to question well-established public protections such as Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, and even unemployment insurance, the income tax and public education.  Fine, you want to oppose all those popular programs, just own up to it when you talk to voters.  But the fire department?  Is it necessary to extend anti-tax, anti-government rhetoric so far as to preclude an institution as apple pie as the fire department from doing its job of putting out fires?   Is that really the kind of country we want to live in?


  1. The tax solution is correct.
    The city taxed the residents of the city for fire service he was not part of the city.
    He did not pay but started the fire.
    He did not rescue his pets in the 2 hours it took for the fire to spread to his home.

    I pity the fool

  2. Joe, I feel your frustration about this story. Many of us (left, right and center) feel that same frustration.

    The way you connect the dots may be a bit over the top. I notice the closer we get to elections the harsher progressives and the far right are getting in every form of communication (the latest, Jerry Brown’s crew, should be ashamed).

    The only people pleased by such party rhetoric are those who already agree with it; and it leaves out the 50% of us in the middle. Many of us who still hope to hear reasonable responses as we decide who to vote for.

  3. The man lives willingly, along with a whole bunch of others, in an UNINCORPORATED section of Obion County, Tennessee. They don't pay taxes to fund the publicly funded (not a private firm) fire department of the City of South Fulton Fire. Mr. Cranick knows this and so do the greedy taxpayers of the City Of South Fulton who only expect to pay taxes for a fire department that puts out their fires. Those selfish jerks.

  4. I don't blame the city taxpayers for not wanting to bear the burden of paying for their fire department to put out rural fires. I blame the county government for rejecting the idea of collecting a tax at the county level. The fire departments would prefer that also, since they are not too happy about not doing their job.

    But I guess you think it is better for the 911 operators to check their records to see if the person who called in the fire paid their subscription fee before sending out the fire trucks. Even the Cranicks' neighbors, who paid the fee and got the fire department's attention, aren't sure that is the best idea, because their house was only in danger when the fire at the Cranicks' house spread. That's the thing about fires. They spread. They affect everyone. So everyone has to pay. It makes no more sense to have an opt in system to pay for the fire department than it would to go door to door to collect funds to support the military or the police or the Coast Guard.

  5. KP, excuse the partisan rhetoric, but as you say, it is election season. I'm all for trying to govern in an inclusive manner--that is one of the themes of this blog--but an election campaign is not the time for that. It's the time to do what you can to help the candidates you favor to win! Sometimes that means appealing to the middle, but other times it requires firing up the base.

  6. So true. I thought the same thing after I posted. You are a good sport and a fierce competitor.

  7. But our California Attorney General Brown and crew should know better :-)

  8. "But I guess you think it is better for the 911 operators to check their records to see if the person who called in the fire paid their subscription fee..."

    Well, that's exactly what the government funded operators did. When private firms put out fires back in the day (as per the link you provided to the Reason article), they never let this situation occur.

    "It makes no more sense to have an opt in system to pay for the fire department than it would to go door to door to collect funds to support the military or the police or the Coast Guard."

    If military funding were voluntary and not mandatory, I bet that we wouldn't have the elective wars and the expensive military empire we have now, huh?

  9. At least you're consistent, VH. But you haven't addressed what economists call the "free rider" problem.

    By the way, when they used to have private fire companies in New York City, as portrayed in the movie Gangs of New York, they were notorious for extorting protection money, and sometimes even for setting fires.

  10. You make a good point on the "free rider" problem. Economists have been confounded by it for a long time. But there are creative ways around it. The fact that private and volunteer firms successfully put out fires for decades before tax-payer funded fire departments started to do it leads me to believe that the “free rider” problem had been solved. Ever wonder why we have so many tax supported fire departments today?

    And the issue with setting fires to get themselves work and pay has also existed with publicly funded fire departments--like in the movie “Back Draft.” Extortion and fraud aren’t privy to private firms only.

  11. That is an interesting article, VH. Thanks for the link. I don't know that I would want all voluntary FD's these days but he makes valid points on a number of issues.