Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Fire Water Burn

For those who missed the news, the world started to end yesterday and it began in Tennessee. Well, not really. But you might get that impression by reading some of the more incendiary articles popping up about the failure of "private" fire insurance in one particular instance. Apparently a man who refused or missed his $75 a year payment to a semi-local fire department had to plead while they sat and watched his house burn down. This, of course, proved to be a slam-dunk against libertarians and their quest for privatization of public services.

Well, except for the fact that it's not much of a slam-dunk at all. As had been pointed out by several libertarian-leaning commentators yesterday, the fire department wasn't private. In fact, it was a neighboring public fire department extending for-pay services to their rural neighbors whom did not have a fire department. The aforementioned article (and the comments that followed) are fairly bewildering in light of that. It's a little more than odd when someone turns the so-called lack of compassion exhibited by the all-caring public sector into knots in trying to lay blame for it at the feet of the private sector. "Don't you see!? This government-run fire department being so uncompassionate is the EXACT reason why free markets fail!" Come again? Confirmation bias is one thing - this is a bit of a stretch though...even for hardcore partisans.

Of course (as Arnold Kling points out) this doesn't denote government failure to a fundamentalist. The fact that this particular area did not have their own fire department, in it's own right, makes a case for market failure and a tangential case for government empowerment in their eyes. However it does, in my mind, push the question of immediate moral obligations (placed on the firefighters) at least back to a neutral position, if not back in their court completely. If the conjecture was that this fire department stood back and watched this house burn because the service was offered from a private provider, then they are misleading or being misled. It turns out that even organizations as benevolent as the government engage in cost-benefit analysis.

But the moral question seems to be pretty inviting either way. This story (regardless of whether the fire department was public or private) is a great analogy to the greater arguments for and against social safety nets. It's strikingly similar to the situation that Peter Singer so often proposes in defense of government intervention. He poses a seemingly simple moral question: You are alone in the wilderness and come across a pond. In the middle of the pond a small child (who cannot swim) is drowning. You calculate that you could easily save the child. The worst that might happen is you getting your clothes wet and wasting a few minutes of time. He asks, "Would it not be morally reprehensible to not save the child? If it is reprehensible, then shouldn't we use government force (safety nets) to save the 'drowning child' of our own society (the poor)?"

Likewise I heard similar remarks throughout the day, yesterday, regarding this man's house. "There's no good reason to sit and let someone's house burn down." From a intuitively moral standpoint, it's hard to argue with that line of reasoning. If you're able to help, you should probably help. At the least it would prove a virtuous act. On the other hand, whether virtuous action should translate to legal obligation, that's another story entirely.

If it wasn't simply the fault of my own amateur interest in economics, I would swear that Hazlitt's ghost haunts me. The moral question is more complex than its originators pretend it to be (or believe it to be). We are engaged in the moral musings of the seen in exchange for the moral musings which never take place for the unseen. If we believe that such an organization should be forced to provide services to those who don't pay, or that government should force people to pay for such services, what we see is a house not burning down. What we don't see is the increased cost to the people who actually pay for such a service, or what that extra money in their pockets might have meant to them personally at the margin, or the employees of other services they patron who will now suffer. This economic reality isn't new, but it's often ignored. There is a real price for every action. Benevolent intentions do not erase opportunity costs.

But beyond the economic points, which may seem distal or ethereal to some, there are very direct (and tangible) consequences to the Peter Singer line-of-reasoning for anyone attempting to bite that bullet. In the drowning-child analogy, we are to presume the logical consequence is for society to effectively force someone to save the child. But let's extend the question: Are doctor's obligated to save a dying or sick patient? Proponents of Singer's moral proposition would be inclined to say, "Well, yes." Alright, so does this apply when they are "off the clock." And if so, how about after they retire? Could we lock them up in prison for refusing? Do construction workers have obligations to house the homeless? Do grocers have obligations to feed them? Can a grocer sue a hungry person who steals their food? Does society have a right to incarcerate such laborers lest they fulfill their moral obligations to the less fortunate?

And if you find yourself tangled in a rebuttal about social contracts, the purpose of government, and taxation to defend your original proposition, start extending your critique beyond the scope of government and look at your daily life. If you've ever bought an i-phone, you should probably be morally your own actions - according to your own absolutist definition of morality of course. I'm not sure how much food that few hundred dollars could have bought on the world-market, but I'm willing to bet it would be enough to save several hundred starving children in Ethiopia from dying on the day you made that purchase. And when you sit in your air-conditioned house relaxing for a few hours tonight, watching the satellite programming you paid for, at your discretion, for the purpose of leisure, that's a few more hours you could have been working to save someone's life. What makes you any less responsible than the the construction worker, the grocer, the doctor, or the man looking upon the drowning child?

You certainly can't save everyone. On the other hand, you can certainly save more. And not in some far-stretched way that isn't analogous to the real moral proposition you might have been preaching just a few minutes ago either; you can very literally (and quite easily I might add) take that extra money from your labor and mail it off to several organizations who will turn your blood sweat and tears into the literal salvation of dying individuals on the other side of the world...right now. So which is it? Should we throw you onto the same pyre which you were so eager to toss other individuals or organizations upon for ignoring the greater good...for letting the proverbial child drown? Or is there some other mysteriously constraining value which keeps you from laying in the wake of your own moral condemnation?

For those of us who believe in individualism, the cornerstone of liberty, it's a sense of ownership in our very selves that keep us from casting moral dispersions upon those of little virtue - even when the accusers are just as guilty. Maybe sacrifice isn't the only value worth having, even if the moralizers in this instance are too blind to see the inherent contradictions in themselves. Actions often speak louder than words. To paraphrase Robert Murphy on this particular story:

[Advocates of larger government] are going on and on about how much more compassionate they are than the heartless conservatives. But of course, the way they “solve” this problem isn’t to chip in their own money to cover those who refuse to pay fire or health insurance premiums–no, their progressive, compassionate solution is to tell those people, “We are taking the money from you at gunpoint.”

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