Paul Krugman poses the rhetorical question of whether we want to live in a country where firemen stand by and let people's houses burn to the ground, as we apparently do. But that's not the issue. All things being equal everyone would prefer that not happen, but there is hugely influential school of thought in this country that thinks we have no choice.
The crux of the issue was a $75 subscription fee that rural homeowners could pay to opt-in to fire protection from the nearby city. This homeowner for some reason had not paid, so when his house caught fire the fire department did not respond, or when they did respond they only helped his paid-up neighbors. And, from an economic standpoint, they were right to do so. After all, if the fire department will put out all fires then that negates the purpose of the fee and no reasonable person would pay it.
As his house was being comsumed in flames the homeowner begged to pay the fee and get service, but of course it can't work that way. The fee is more like insurance, where a large number of small payments are lumped together to pay the costs of the relatively rare fire among subscribers. Once the fire has started the fee would have to cover the full cost of the firefighting. If the risk of fire is (let's say) 0.5% among rural subscribers, then each fire is worth $15,000 in fees. Fee-for-service firefighting is simply unafordable.
Of course from a moral standpoint this is all absolutely horrifying. A house fire is an unqualified evil -- even if no one is killed or injured, which is nontheless quite possible, it can still destroy lives. Otherwise happy and productive people can be driven to destitution, homelessness and despair. Fires can happen to anyone, and it's impossible for individuals to fight them alone. The threat of fire cannot be addressed with "personal responsibilty."
As such, fire spurs us to action. If we can reasonably help someone threated by fire we must do so; morality compells us. Even if you don't risk your life for someone else's property, common decency commands that you at least do what you can. For trained firefighters who have the skills and equipment to deliberately withhold help, that is a moral abomination.
But we have a conflict. Morality says they have to help, but the laws of the free market say they have to sit on their hands. What should they do? Conservative thinkers in this country conclude that money trumps morality. If the free market requires that we do evil, then we have no choice but to do evil. Very serious thinker Glenn Beck mocks the victims as leeches.
If you don't pay the 75 dollars then that hurts the fire department. They can't use those resources, and you'd be sponging off your neighbor's resources.
Jonah Goldberg tries to clothe his money worship as mock compassion.
letting the house burn — while, I admit sad — will probably save more houses over the long haul.
Have to let a few houses burn, he chuckles, so the rubes know we're serious. It'll teach them all a lesson about the compassion of the market.
This is what very serious thinking about public policy has come to in America. It's insane, and it doesn't have to be this way. The free market isn't a force of nature, it's a tool we can use to solve problems. If it violates our most basic moral commandments, don't use it. Abolish the subscription fee and set up a system adequate to serve everyone. We know what it takes to protect people from having their houses burn down, and we should do it. There will be tradeoffs as there always are, but at least we won't have to be complicit in a moral outrage committed in the name of small government.