When Your House Is Burning Down, How Good Is a Public Good?

What is a public good? An article today describes a house fire in Tennessee, where the firefighters refused to extinguish the fire because the owners hadn’t paid the annual voluntary fee for fire protection. The firefighters only intervened when the fire spread to a neighbor’s field and threatened the (fee-paying) neighbor’s house. Is fire protection excludable? In a small town, with widely separated houses, it may be-after all, what is the harm to me if the house of the family who hadn’t paid its tax burns down? In such a case, the best argument for requiring payment of the fire-protection fee is that there are economies of scale in providing protection. But then the fee should be compulsory-a tax. In a suburb or city, the density of dwellings means that there are such large externalities that fire protection is non-excludable.

(HT: TW)


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  1. Shirin says:

    Basically, fire protection is a private service in many parts of the country. If you want it, you pay for it. If you don’t think you’ll need it, you don’t. I pay for fire protection out here in the Ozark foothills. My neighbor doesn’t. So far he is winning his bet.

    If people think fire protection should be a public service, they should be prepared to pay taxes for it, understanding that this WILL increase the costs of the service involved. However, putting requirements on fire departments to put out fires in the folks who do not wish to pay for this service simply will guarantee that nobody will pay their dues, and that costs for anybody left paying anything will escalate. This is pretty much what happened in medicine with EMTALA. Either you go with a wholly public service or you go with a wholly private service but either way, you need to understand there are tradeoffs involved

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  2. markchd says:

    Having made less than $10,000 in 2009 and having required the assistance of my local fire department twice in 2010, I’m inclined to ask: Shouldn’t some services always be socialized?

    The ability to opt out may have seemed lovely had I been able to reduce my (minimal) tax-bill, but some things should be deemed essential. Or at least subsidized for low wage earners. Right?

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  3. Max R says:

    This type of “private” fire service is acceptable anywhere, including dense urban environments, however the implementation in this case was incorrect.

    The “tax” or fee could be considered a type of insurance. It ensures that the cost of the fire fight remains relatively low. The firefighters however should not consider this fact when responding to an emergency call. They should put the fire out and bill the responsible party regardless of the astronomical amount. This type of system puts the financial onus on the homeowner without risking the well being of the community,

    It is never acceptable for adequately prepared first responders to sit idle while tragedy strikes.

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  4. Iljitsch van Beijnum says:

    I guess one man’s “voluntary” fee is another man’s protection racket.

    I’m surprised there is no special higher “house currently on fire” version of the fee, it seems to me that the fire department is leaving money on the table here. I’m sure they can use the money; I suspect there are some legal fees in their future.

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  5. shamus says:

    “what is the harm to me if the house of the family who hadn’t paid its tax burns down?”

    Well, I think you answered that question, Daniel. Even in this sparsely populated rural setting the house fire was able to spread and endanger their neighbors. Fires are not a risk that are self contained, unchecked they quickly spread to any nearby fuel sources.

    So, by not intervening, the fire department (and by not paying, the home owner) put other nearby properties at risk…

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  6. Ricardo says:

    This isn’t actually a dilemma:

    If pre-paying is voluntary, then there should be an option to pay a large one time fee to the fire department in the case that a non pre-payer’s house is burning.

    $75/year or $5,000 per call, something like that.

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  7. Alexander Thesoso says:

    Oh dear me… And if [Name one] fire insurance company doesn’t pay to rebuild the house just because the owner doesn’t have a policy with them, public good suggests that fire insurance should be mandatory for everyone, and paid for by a tax. After all, it is free.

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  8. Brett says:

    I agree, this system wouldn’t work in a more densely built area.

    I also agree with the fire fighters; if they had made an exception for this house, the next years fees would all but disappear.

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