So just what does a world dominated by the ideology of those on the right who would cut taxes, starve government and transfer essential services into the hands of the private sector look like? Well, it would look an awful lot like Obion County, Tennessee where a homeowner watched in horror as his home burnt to the ground all while firefighters stood by and watched.
You see, in Obion County residents must pay $75 if they want fire protection from the city of South Fulton. If the homeowners don’t pay then, no matter what, they don’t get fire services.
The city’s policy has been in place since 1990 has been compared to that of an auto insurance policy by the Mayor and county commission. The problem, of course, is that fire services are in no way an insurance policy. An insurance policy doesn’t try to prevent or mitigate tragedies while they are in progress. Instead, an insurance policy protects against loss and is valued by a very specific risk/benefit analysis. Here homeowner’s are not asking the city to repay them for losses suffered due to tragedy but rather to provide the essential services that their tax dollars subsidize and that local municipalities, through their police power, agree to take on.
According to reports, firefighters would not respond to the fire until the blaze had reached the property of a neighbor who had paid the fee. Of course, this raises all sorts of complicated legal questions, ones I’m sure city officials gave very little thought to. Had a bystander been injured or died in the blaze because it was allowed to burn as long as it did, who then is at fault? In this case the homeowner desperately tried to save his property, but all he had available was a garden hose. Does that make him responsible for any loss to his neighbor’s property? What if the reason he couldn’t pay the fee was because he was on a fixed income and just couldn’t afford it? Then what happens and who bears that risk and shoulders that responsibility?
These are precisely the kinds of questions that those advocating for doing away with essential government services ignore, but they are precisely the kinds of questions that need to be addressed. Government is not good at taking care of every problem, but there are some basic services like police, fire, sanitation and transportation that it does well in part because it furthers our social contract–that is, the basic understanding that on some level we all are in this world together. It’s an idea conservatives have drifted far away from.
photo courtesy of Jay Adan via Flickr