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Monday, October 4, 2010

Burn, baby, burn, when am I gonna get my fee?

by John MacBeath Watkins

Well, that's libertarian.

Firefighters from the city of South Fulton, Tenn., got the call in time to save Gene Cranick's house from the flames that would consume it, but they wouldn't come until his neighbor's field caught fire. They dealt with the field, then stood around and watched the house burn down because Cranick hadn't paid a $75 annual fee to be protected by the fire department. His neighbor had paid, (the fee is for people outside the city) so his fire got put out.

A local television reporter, Jason Hibbs, asked the fire chief why, when the firemen were already there, and Cranick offered to pay whatever it would take to get the fire put out,  he refused to do so. The fire chief called the police to escort the reporter off the property, and while the police did not respond, the firemen quickly left while the house still burned.  I can well imagine why the police did not want to get caught up in the dispute.

The fire department has, or course, been roundly condemned -- sorry, got that wrong, actually roundly praised -- by bloggers at the National Review.

Kevin Williamson of the National Review said: "The world is full of jerks, freeloaders, and ingrates — and the problems they create for themselves are their own. These free-riders have no more right to South Fulton’s firefighting services than people in Muleshoe, Texas, have to those of NYPD detectives."

Two other bloggers from the same conservative organ felt the same, while only one wondered what moral theory allowed them to let the house burn.

So here's my question: Suppose the contract in question had been a union contract instead of a management contract. Would these stern conservatives still think the contract was sacrosanct, and the firefighters, even though they were there to deal with the neighbor's fire, had no obligation to put out the house fire right in front of them?

One of the four National Review bloggers, Daniel Foster, would have a ready answer, and it would be the same one he gave this time:

"But forget the politics: what moral theory allows these firefighters (admittedly acting under orders) to watch this house burn to the ground when 1) they have already responded to the scene; 2) they have the means to stop it ready at hand; 3) they have a reasonable expectation to be compensated for their trouble?"

The other three bloggers would have some thinking to do.

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