The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

Like a House on Fire

Believe it or not, sometimes I censor myself. I write nearly complete blog posts and then decide for one reason or another not to publish them. Sometimes I censor them because even I’m convinced that I might have gone a little overboard. But yesterday, I read about something I wanted to write a post about, only to realize that I already had written a post about it — about a month before it happened.

Back in August, I wrote this in response to a post by Glenn Greenwald, about trend of cities and counties unpaving roads, turning out streetlights, stopping public bus service, shortening the school year, and even talking about eliminating the 12th grade.

House On Fire

Lights, paved roads, police and fire protection, etc., are to be only for those who can afford to pay for them out of their own pockets. Does that mean if I can afford to hire a security guard for my home, but my neighbor can’t, that my security guard would stand buy and watch my neighbor’s home burglarized? I guess so, if I told him not to because I didn’t hire him to protect their home. And I’d be perfectly justified in doing so. After all, if they were doing what they’re supposed to do, they’d have their own security guard too.

Does the same go for fire protection? If I have my own fire protection service contract with a private company and they show up to put out a fire at our house, and my neighbor’s house was on fire too (unrelated out our own fire, of course) would they just leave when our fire was out? Maybe they would try to sell my neighbor a contract on the spot as his house burned? (My guess is he’d say “Yes,” in a hurry, even if the sales rep. — who would of course accompany the firefighters — had to go through his whole spiel.)

I suppose the rest of the neighborhood could start a bucket brigade, but first wouldn’t we have to ask “Why doesn’t this guy have his own fire rescue service?” And if we helped save his house, wouldn’t we just be encouraging his irresponsibility and laziness? Will he ever learn if we don’t let it burn?

That’s assuming, that the fire fighters get there before the houses burn down. I mean, if government no longer paves roads, and even city governments are broke or defunct, then I guess various neighborhoods will have to pave their own roads and pay for them somehow. Assuming we can agree that we have a common interest in paving our street. We might even end up with patches of paved and unpaved road on a single street, with everyone doing as they please with the patch of road in front of their homes. I can envision a checkerboard pattern, since we’d probably be individually responsible for the patch of road in of of our house, on our side of the street.

Speaking of which, who would own it? It wouldn’t belong to the government — city, county, or state — anymore….

I guess we’d have to support it with a toll booth of some sort. (Of course, I live on a cul-de-sac, so we don’t get much through traffic. Most of the tolls would come from us, and the occasional lost drivers drivers who use our street as a good point to turn around. (Maybe we can get them coming and going, with tolls for entering and leaving the street?)

I’m worried about how long it will take our private fire rescue service to get through the various tolls booths. Not to mention contending with the stretches gravel and unpaved dirt roads along the way. If it’s rained recently, we might be out of luck. Or the company might have a means of finding the completely paved or mostly paved routs. Either way, I’m sure the their tolls would be figured into our contract somehow. Maybe different subscription levels would be the answer, and “Platinum” members would subscribe to the service that includes the tolls for the fastest, most direct routes to our house.

Of course, it’s unlikely that I’d be able to afford a security guard, because I’d have to quit my job. We’re a two income family, but if one of us has to stay at home to homeschool the kids, it will make the most economic sense for it to be me. Besides, I take the bus and Metro to work now, and public transportation just won’t exist. I haven’t owned a car in over 10 years. So, I won’t be able to go anywhere anyway. (At least there’s a grocery store within walking distance of home.)

It’s no accident that these painful cuts are happening as a direct result congressional obstruction by a conservatism increasingly driven by a fringe that is violently opposed to the very idea of government. You can hear it in voices of Tea Party supporters who declare that the only purpose of government is defense, the protection of property (and maybe person), and the enforcement of contracts.

What must be understood is that all of the above is, as far as conservatism is concerned, as it should be. Government has no business paving roads, funding police departments or fire departments, let alone shools, libraries and streetlights. Even the interstate highway system. (Watch. Eventually, they will come for it too.)

It’s almost as if conservatives are literally trying to turn back the clock to a darker (literally) time in America that they view as some golden era of freedom.

It stared out as an extended note on Glenn’s post, and I started turning it into a blog post. It never saw the light of day, and I assumed it never would. I left it unpublished. It was a draft of a blog post that I never published, because it seemed too far fetched even for me. Post this, I thought, and almost certainly someone will call me an alarmist, because the above just wouldn’t happen. I’d be dismissed for painting some people as wild-eyed extremists who want people’s houses to burn down. I’d be accused of fear-mongering by speculating on the likely outcomes of certain policies. Best leave it in the “drafts” pile.

I thought about adding another twist, traffic lights. After all the traffic lights in our area went haywire last year, I was reminded how traffic lights work. I was also reminded why traffic lights work. In our area, the computer network that keeps traffic lights in sync is run maintained by the county, which also employs a team of engineers to repair signals as necessary. I also learned that the U.S. Department of Transportation has developed criteria for the installation of traffic signals. So the federal government has a hand in traffic signals, and the county uses my tax dollars to maintain traffic signals.

The words “traffic light” and “traffic signal” don’t appear anywhere in the constitution. Nor, for that matter, does the word “transportation” so that’s all right out. I’ll take page from the Tea Party and borrow one tea bagger’s definition of government’s purpose.

“All I know is government was put here for certain reasons,” Ms. Reimer said. “They were not put here to run banks, insurance companies, and health care and automobile companies. They were put here to keep us safe.”

So, that’s the gestalt or the essence of the prevailing definition of government on the right. But what it means for me and my every day life takes a bit more sussing out. Fortunately, Rand Paul’s victory in Kentucky’s Republican Senate primary provided an opportunity to figure just what contemporary conservatives thought the government should do.

Democrats have already begun shifting the debate to what Mr. Paul and Tea Party ideology say about the role of government.

Groups like FreedomWorks, which has helped mobilize the Tea Party movement, and supporters who came to the party through the quixotic presidential campaign of Mr. Paul’s father, Representative Ron Paul, Republican of Texas, embrace arguments that government should not provide what individuals can provide for themselves. So, police and public safety are acceptable functions of government, but government should not take from one person’s income to provide for another’s health or well-being.

So, there go my traffic signals, among other things. I think. So, aside from the numerous toll roads. Would traffic lights be a problem? Again, my post would have sounded like some paranoid, dystopian ranting. Much too “out there” to be published.

Well.

Then Gene Cranick’s house burned down.

Firefighters aren’t afraid to break down windows and doors to douse flames, but a Tennessee family’s failure to pay a $75 fee stopped firefighters dead in their tracks last week as a home burned to the ground.

South Fulton, Tenn., firefighters stood on the sidelines, watching as flames engulfed Gene Cranick’s Obion County home. They refused to help because Cranick had not paid an annual “pay to spray” subscription fee.

“I just forgot to pay my $75,” homeowner Gene Cranick said. “I did it last year, the year before. … It slipped my mind.”

Watch “World News with Diane Sawyer” for more on this story tonight on ABC.

The city of South Fulton charges that $75 fire protection fee to rural residents who live outside the city limits. When a household has not paid the fee, firefighters are required by law to not respond.

Sweet bloody Christ. Welcome to the privatization of everything.

Thanks to 30 years of right-wing demagoguery about the evils of “collectivism” and the perfidy of “big government” — and a bruising recession that’s devastated state and local budgets — we’re getting a peek at a dystopian nightmare that may be in our not-too-distant future. It’s a picture of a society in which “rugged individualism” run amok means every man for himself.

Call it Ayn Rand’s stark, anti-governmental dream come true, a vision that last week turned into a nightmare for Gene Cranick, a rural homeowner in Obion County, Tennessee. Cranick hadn’t forked over $75 for the subscription fire protection service offered to the county’s rural residents, so when firefighters came out to the scene, they just stood there, with their equipment on the trucks, while Cranick’s house burned to the ground. According to the local NBC TV affiliate, Cranick “said he offered to pay whatever it would take for firefighters to put out the flames, but was told it was too late. They wouldn’t do anything to stop his house from burning.”

The fire chief could have made an exception on the spot, but refused to do so. Pressed by the local NBC news team for an explanation, Mayor David Crocker said, “if homeowners don’t pay, they’re out of luck.”

…And although one can live just fine without consumer goods—nobody ever died for lack of an iPod—society as a whole suffers a lot of damage from less-than-ideal fire control. While hiring, or not being able to hire, a fire brigade was a private matter that accorded nicely with the principles of the free market, it was also a transaction that came with what economists call negative “externalities”: effects that a transaction between two parties can have on a third. In this case, those effects are fairly obvious: a fire that isn’t properly extinguished can spread rapidly to neighboring homes, potentially resulting in a disastrous conflagration that could consume the whole neighborhood. In Obion County, the firefighters who watched Cranick’s house burn down only responded to the fire once it had spread to the property of a neighbor who’d paid the fee.

Firefighting is like many other goods that are vital to a healthy society but which the private sector isn’t suited to provide. That’s why the conservative rhetoric about “limited government” is only appealing in the abstract — people really, really like living in a society with adequately funded public services. They like what government does in the specific, even if they have an inherent suspicion of the idea of “big government.”

…Limited government only sounds good as an abstraction, but the principles of the free market won’t get you too far when your house is on fire.

It isn’t a stretch to assume that “if homeowners can’t pay, they’re out of luck.” At least they are in a world where anything that can’t be done at a profit isn’t worth doing, especially delivering service — however badly needed — to those whom it will never be profitable to serve.

I mentioned all of this to a woman I met at a conference yesterday, as we talked over lunch about writing fiction. She suggested the above would be a good premise for a novel about what a potential future might look like. She may be right. “What if Ayn Rand ruled the world?” might make for interesting fiction.

But I just hope it would remain fiction.

%d bloggers like this: