Letting Homes Burn in Obion County: Re-send the Memo

"I'll pay the $75 now."

Just in time for Christmas, we have the heart-warming story—or just plain “warming”—of the South Fulton (Tennessee) Fire Department once again standing by as someone’s home burns down.  Ethics Alarms wrote about this  outfit doing the same thing in 2010, following Obion County policy: pay the yearly $75 fire department fee, or be prepared to put out your own damn fires.

In 2010, it was the home of a cheapskate named Gene Cranick, who, like the people who can afford health insurance but don’t buy it anyway, figured that his  community would still do the right thing if the worst happened, so he gambled to save the money.  The South Fulton Fire Department did the right thing, all right, at least according to Obion County officials. They let his house go up in flames.

This time, it was mobile home owner Vicky Bell whose dumb gamble backfired.  She admits that she was aware of the fee and the policy but “did not think they would ever be victims of a fire.”  Oops. Her home caught fire, and she called 911. The fire department did come out, but apparently just to make sure none of her paying neighbors were in danger of burning, or perhaps to make sure Vicky really felt stupid—“I mean, the fire equipment was that close!”—as the firefighters looked on.  Did they sing an ironic chorus of “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…” in honor of the season? Perhaps.

The last time this happened, I wrote:

“A community’s citizens would join together and voluntarily help a neighbor save a neighbor’s home, but these trained, professional firefighters wouldn’t because of a lousy $75 bucks? Where is their kindness, where is their humanity? So they put out the fire and send a whopping bill for services later…is that really so hard to figure out? Would the South Fulton police department watch home invaders rape and kill a family that didn’t pay its police bill? Would a South Fulton lifeguard sit by and watch Cranick’s child drown because he hadn’t paid the pool fee? Would a South Fulton doctor shout taunts at Gene while he slowly died of a heart attack if he was late paying his bill? “Anybody that’s not in the city of South Fulton, it’s a service we offer, either they accept it or they don’t,” South Fulton Mayor David Crocker said.  Where is this city, Hell?…..The system is so stupid as to be per se unethical….there is a reason why most municipalities abandoned private firefighting companies more than a century ago.”

The South Fulton mayor explained that if they make an exception for one house, then no one will pay the “pay-for-spray” fee. “There’s no way to go to every fire and keep up the manpower, the equipment, and just the funding for the fire department,” he told the media as Bell’s home was smoldering. “After the last situation, I would hope that everybody would be well aware of the rural fire fees.”

Well, maybe if the next time a baby gets roasted or a wheelchair-bound grandmother flame-broiled, they’ll get the point, Mayor.  Keep your fingers crossed, maybe one of these will happen soon! Actually, the county’s policy is that the department will intervene if human life is in danger, whether the fee was paid or not. Why? Because that is the point at which the authorities figure (correctly) that the public will not tolerate its tough love. So it isn’t really a case of pay or be damned, is it? The real policy is “pay or else the fire department will do the least it can do without county officials being condemned by the culture, society and voters as inhuman monsters.” That makes Obion County and the town of South Fulton responsible, as well as the larger Tennessee and U.S. culture, if it continues to tolerate what happened to Cranick and Bell. The county lets houses burn because society tolerates it.

It shouldn’t.

What is such a fee, anyway? It it’s a tax, then the proper remedy for non-payment is financial and legal penalties. If it’s insurance, then the proper remedy is to bill non-paying citizens whose property has to be rescued for the actual costs of the rescue, including the pro-rated salaries of the firefighters. If they don’t pay that, then confiscate the property. (Since the South Fulton firefighters still responded to Bell’s fire, no money was saved by its inaction.) Or is the $75 really just protection money, a shake-down fee for government services that ought to be provided to everyone automatically? That seems to describe what is going on in Obion County.

Ethics norms are set by what society decides is right and wrong, and what society refuses to tolerate any more becomes, by definition, wrong. Long ago most of the American culture made up its mind about the matter of fees relating to public safety, but Obion County seems to have missed the memo.

It’s time to send another copy.

44 thoughts on “Letting Homes Burn in Obion County: Re-send the Memo

  1. Difficult situation indeed. Kinda like the “individual mandate” for health insurance. People don’t buy health insurance because they assume that the local hospital and medical infrastructure will treat them if they get sick, or at least, REALLY sick. However, because American citizens do this often enough, or are illegal aliens who take advantage of American charity and generosity, the “individual mandate” was promulgated under the so-called Healthcare Affordability Act, placing the burden on all citizens to supposedly cover the costs for all, citizens and non-citizens alike. Kinda like a county tax or equivalent in “fine” to support the fire department, isn’t it? So, by analogy, shouldn’t Obion County have the right to impose a “fine” on its residents if they don’t pay the county tax which relates to the fire department fee? And seize personal property if they don’t? (Unlike los Federales, they can’t put ’em in jail, or send a SWAT team after them.)
    At some point, freeloaders have to be taught a lesson that all grown-ups must learn. That there are consequences to your own decisions, and to your own actions. Fortunately, the Obion County folks recognized this, yet wisely drew the line at threats to human life. The lesson can still be learned, and an example made, and I, for one, think that it’s long overdue.

    • But to invoke “The Mikado,” shouldn’t the punishment fit the crime? It’s subject to reasonable disagreement, but as with Wolf Blizer’s “letting them die on the hospital floor” hypo, I think the penalty of letting someone’s house burn down is way beyond the pale. The homeowner’s misdeed is one of community and fiscal irresponsibility and selfishness—make them pay through the nose, throw ’em in jail, make them watch “Backdraft”…but don’t let the house burn. I don’t have sympathy for Vicky and Gene, but this makes them look like victims rather than the freeloaders they really are.

      • Well, at least we agree that the punishment should fit the crime. But shouldn’t colossal stupidity be rewarded with colossal losses? (Unless you are a Wall Street investment bank, of course.) Granted, that some people are so self-defeating in their thinking that they bring about their self-destruction, and perhaps, PERHAPS, it could be argued that “society” should protect them in some way. However, in this case, we have a (likely) case of believing that the fire department would probably come anyway, whether they paid or not. So, why pay? It is THIS sort of thinking that needs to be stemmed in the bud, not merely a stupid gamble of $75 against a $20,000 total loss of the only home you have.

        • I don’t think it is colossal stupidity. It’s only stupidity if they know that their heartless and incompetent fire department will, in fact, let a residence burn while they are situated to stop it. Since such conduct is counter-intuitive and a violation of both the Golden Rule and principles of absolutism, as well as dubious utilitarianism as best, Vicky’s belief, though wrong, was reasonable.

          It was colossally CHEAP, however.

          • No it wasn’t, Jack. It wasn’t reasonable. It was (most likely, but for the sake of the argument, let’s suggest likely) that it was a dare. I know that you don’t like to be wrong, but when you end up defending the antisocial behavior of such people who try to “beat the system,” lose, and then go whining about it, or have clueless column bloggers take their side, further statements become simply wasted keyboard time.
            As the governor of my fair state of South Dakota quoted in his inaugural address, January 2011, we help those who want to be helped, because we are neighborly, but “if a man lies down in the road intentionally, it is not our duty to pick him up.” It is appropriate neighborliness that makes me proud to live in the first state to balance income and outgo in this fiscal year, because we do not spend money we do not have. We allocate resources appropriately and we ask people to help themselves, and help their neighbors, the ones who do NOT lie down in the road, by knowingly expecting others to come to their aid when they put themselves (and their property) in danger of loss that could otherwise have been protected. [http://sd.gov/Governor/docs/2011-01-08%20Inaugural%20address.pdf]

      • And further, perhaps the actions of the South Fulton Fire Department make them look like victims to YOU, and probably a lot of other people in our society who DON’T acknowledge the responsibility for one’s own actions that characterize a grown-up, but as they say, there are a lot more adults in our American society than grown-ups.

  2. If it’s insurance, then the proper remedy is to bill non-paying citizens whose property has to be rescued for the actual costs of the rescue, including the pro-rated salaries of the firefighters.

    That can’t possibly work, can it? In this situation, a mobile home fire, it was probably already a total loss by the time the fire department rolled up anyway. The owner is under duress, so any agreement to pay the high costs of fire rescue, in my opinion, might not hold up. The victim is already losing everything they own, and now you want to give them an option of incurring up to $20k in debt to save a few trinkets?

    I feel bad for these people, I do… but if saving their house means that everyone waives the fee and then there’s no Rural Fire Department in the future, and someone dies as a result, I don’t know how to balance that.

    If this is such an issue for the local residents, the easiest thing to do, rather than mandate that the rescuers intervene at all times, is to mandate the fee as a tax. Every day that passes where the fee isn’t converted to a tax is community acceptance of the system as it is. Everyone that waives the fee, does so acknowledging the small possibility of total loss.

    I just hope they have fire insurance and that their policy isn’t void for negligence because they waived an annual fee.

  3. “Ethics norms are set by what society decides is right and wrong, and what society refuses to tolerate any more becomes, by definition, wrong.”

    (Obion County case aside and granted: I am taking a statement out of context) Still, I completely did not expect you to say that. It is at odds with some basics that I have been instructed about ethics. Unless I am misunderstanding you, “what society decides is right and wrong” – no matter how such decision occurs, such as for example by democratic processes – is nevertheless automatically and unavoidably on a slippery slope to majoritarianism (the ethics challenge is for the majority to maintain its footing, as close to the summit as possible); in regard to ethics, I have learned, “there is nothing magical about majorities” (quote marks mine, meaning to paraphrase a textbook). My personal derivation, or corollary, from there is “all the more reason to be all the more wary of minoritarianism.”

    But I have even stronger misgivings when you say, “…what society refuses to tolerate any more becomes, by definition, wrong.” So…Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow should not be kneeling and appearing to pray during ballgames, because (some, at least, have decided) that’s “wrong,” but any guy who sacks Tebow and does a mock-kneel before Tebow’s prone body and upturned face should be tolerated (with – gasp! – nary a yellow flag!), because mocking someone who’s done wrong is simply “just consequences?”

    • Your comment mixes several concepts. Majority conduct does not define right and wrong, but majority sensibilities does. A culture is defined by what it designates as right and wrong—that’s what culture is. There are absolute ethical principles that a culture cannot over-ride (many dispute this), but a culture that embraces unethical values as ethical is generally doomed. Since ethics is a dynamic process, the search for right and its societal enforcement, it is to a great extent majoritarian. The society learns through experience, norms change, what was once considered good or a good is no longer tolerated and becomes regarded as bad and unethical.

      Morality, which involves rules, is authority-based, not consensus based. But my original statement is correct regarding ethics. I personally think abortion is unethical. It is tolerated as ethical by the culture, however…in American culture, it is ethical, as well as legal.If the majority comes to believe it is unethical and there is less tolerance of it, it could become unethical, though legal. If enough people find it intolerable, it could even be found illegal.

      But the fact that lots of people have abortions doesn’t make abortions ethical.

      In Michael Shermer’s “The Science of Good and Evil,” he argues that in American society there is about 95% consensus on what is right and wrong. That’s about right, and what I would expect.

      • Jack, thanks for responding to my post. I appreciate tremendously the tutelage effect that your blog provides. I might not be the most competent student of ethics, but I aim to be one of the most determined learners.

        In the Obion case, this may be cruel, but I think limited resources justify limited obligations. The greater cruelty or potential cruelty, in my view, is in freeloaders’ willful attempted imposition (as differentiated from unintentional and incidental imposition) of obligations on sustainers and stewards of limited resources. That, to me, is classic compassion bullying.

  4. Again, this is how volunteer fire departments work. When I lived outside the city limits, I didn’t pay city taxes and the city fire department didn’t protect me. I had to subscribe to the volunteer fire department which was a private, nonprofit agency. I was paying for a service. Each year I pay the fee and they will come put out my house if it is on fire. If I didn’t pay the fee, they would come out to rescue anyone trapped inside and to make sure the fire didn’t spread to a house that did pay the fee. I have lived in rural areas all my life and this is how every volunteer fire department (in 5 states) I know works .

    I’m not sure you understand how insurance works, either. If my house is destroyed in an earthquake, an insurance company won’t rebuild my house unless I had earthquake insurance. They won’t rebuild it and then charge me a fee, they just won’t rebuild it. If it is destroyed in a flood and I don’t have flood insurance, they won’t rebuild it. They won’t rebuild it and then tack on an extra fee. If you don’t pay your volunteer fire department, they won’t fight the fire. They won’t fight the fire and then charge you and extra fee.

    Why won’t an insurance company cover me if I don’t have a policy with them? Why won’t they replace my stolen car if I only have liability insurance? Why won’t they fix my earthquake damage even though I don’t have earthquake insurance? Why won’t they fix my flood damage even though my house is uninsured? Why won’t they pay my spouse $100,000 when I die even though I don’t have life insurance?

    • An insurance company is not analogous. A person is automatically a member of a community. No business has an obligation to provide products or services that aren’t paid for—see the recent post on Us Air. Nobody’s saying anyone should pay for the home, just that everyone available in a community should try to save it if they can, and if there’s a community resource, then it should find a way to help even cheapskate idiots who are in dire need. That’s what communities are for.

      I find it remarkable, if this system is as common as you would have us believe, that only one small county in Tennessee ever has had homes burn down while firefighters watch in two years. How do you explain that?

      My guess: the system has been abandoned or adjusted everywhere else so it doesn’t happen.

      • You don’t know the rest of the story, Jack. Was there a prior relationship between the individuals who spurned the “community voluntary fire association, or equivalent” and the officials involved in assessing and collecting the fee? Did these people accentuate their irresponsible action in not paying the fee by verbal abuse? Seems like you left out this important detail recently in another “jump-to-conclusion” column you wrote about the altercation with the police officer. In any case, your argument that the system has been “adjusted everywhere else” leaves you lauding mob rule, or majority rule, majority probity or some such similar process.
        By the way, where DO you stand on the individual mandate for healthcare? And, being consistent, shouldn’t you collate your espoused view here with the idea that individuals should NOT have to pay for their own health insurance, (or substitute “fee”, i.e. Federal tax, if they don’t), and still lunch off the American health system that is going broke because of such behavior?

        • 1) HUH?
          2) Since when is community and societal consensus about shared values “mob rule”? Holy Elitism, Batman!
          3) The individual mandate is unconstitutional, and has to be the place where SCOTUS finally draws the line at Commerce Clause over-reach…despite the fact that it would help the specific problem it was devised to solve, and despite the fact that those refusing to carry insurance when they have the wherewithal to do so are freeloading creeps…just like Vicky.

          • 1) The fire department may have done nothing about her housefire to “teach VIcky a lesson” if she had mouthed off at the local town meeting about this “voluntary fee,” for example. In which case, we have a different twist of the ethical question. On the other hand, maybe she was indeed “asking for it.”
            2) “Societal consensus” and “shared values” can, at times, otherwise be termed “tyrrany of the majority.” See Alexis de Tocqueville, DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA. Slavery was a “societal consensus” and a “shared value” until it wasn’t. All movements of change start with brave individuals that have the balls to counter the status quo when it needs to be countered.
            3) I agree

            • I don’t disagree at all with challenging social consensus—slavery is the perfect example, with Harriet Beecher Stowe opening everyone’s eyes. More often than not, however, by a huge margin, the majority has it right. Good leadership helps a lot.

              • Jack, I really don’t buy this business about the “wisdom of the majority” in moral or ethical matters, or a lot of other things, actually. And whether it does “more often than not” makes its judgment relatively worthless in debating the merits of the case, since it becomes increasingly arbitrary to judge whether it’s the “more often” or the “not” which applies to the principal at hand. Would it be the ethical and correct thing to do to drive back 20 miles to return the change given by the merchandiser in error? Yes, but would it be “practical?” Probably not, DEPENDING ON THE AMOUNT. My guess would be that the “popular” response would be swayed more by the practicality of the issue rather than the absolute correct ethical thing to do. Recall the proposal of the man asking a woman if she will sleep with him for $1 million, “Well, yes,” but when he asks if she will sleep with him for $20, she says, “No! What do you think I am, a whore?,” to which the reply is, “We have already established that, we are just negotiating the price.” If prostitution, meaning the exchange of sex for money, is to be considered shameful, then it should be so regardless of price. Once again, my guess would be that the “majority” would attempt to find a “loophole.” Why society, and the “majority” considers an honest business exchange immoral or unethical, and somehow looks the other way at “trophy wives” I’ll never understand.

                • A culture defines itself. That’s not hard to understand. Individuals, leaders, those who are trusted can turn the ship, but ultimately right and wrong is decided by trial and error. Toxic cultural decisions in sub-cultures, like the gradual acceptance of unmarried childbirth in African-American communities, signal themselves as unethical to other sub-cultures and generations. A culture learns how to be ethical, or it doesn’t…if it doesn’t, it eventually falls apart, like Nazi Germany, unless it is incredibly lucky. In any event, it won’t be successful.

                  There’s no way to settle ethics by decree…morality is always by decree, on the other hand, because it has to be enforced by someone. Ethics, on the other hand, is enforced by social norms and intolerance.

                  Our disagreement on this issue is basic: I believe that a society that lets people’s house burn down, for whatever reason, is on the road to callousness and warped priorities. You believe that the need to enforce responsible behavior and civic duties is more important, and that lax enforcement will lead to a dysfunctional society. I am cheered by the fact that the majority’s sense of right and wrong at this point clearly tilts my way. That doesn’t prove that I’m right, but it does show where the ethic-O-meter sits at the present time.

      • I don’t see how being part of a community has anything to do with it. A volunteer fire department is no more or less a part of the community than EMT’s and paramedics, many of whom work for for-profit companies and are not public employees. Ambulance services also will refuse to come to a call outside their appointed area (the area that has a contract with them). The volunteer fire departments are not necessarily associated with any county or city government and contracts with individual homeowners and businesses in a similar fashion to the ambulance services.

      • “No business has an obligation to provide products or services that aren’t paid for—see the recent post on Us Air.”

        Since the Volunteer Fire Association is a business…

        and if there’s a community resource, then it should find a way to help even cheapskate idiots who are in dire need.

        ….and not a community resource….

              • Better limited to fee-payers than to not be available to everyone.

                Should the cities and towns with Fire Protection Service just pack it in and tell the rural communities to devise their own solution instead of providing ad-hoc service to people who know the value of FPS?

                Perhaps you think by extending their skill-set outside of their jurisdiction, they are preventing the rural communities from diagnosing the problem and coming to a proper resolution.

                Here’s how it breaks down (and I know you know this, but it warrants elucidation):

                1) Area Alpha has proper Fire Protection.
                2) Area Omega cannot afford proper Fire Protection.
                3) Residents of Omega choose not to institute a proper fire protection institution and choose not to tax all residents to purchase proper fire protection from Alpha.
                4) Alpha offers to sell individually, a product to any home owner who wishes to purchase it. The product is called “In-Caseshit”.
                5) Omega resident Zeta fails to buy Alpha’s offered product In-Caseshit, and when shit happens, Zeta calls Alpha and requests their product.
                6) Alpha had devised a price for “In-Caseshit” based on forward looking patterns, but In-Caseshit is a forward looking product. The product that Zeta would like to buy is “Shit-isHappening”, which would be a much more expensive product, if Alpha even sold it all.
                7) Alpha decides not to produce and sell the product Shit-isHappening because they know that you can’t sell the product to individuals under duress. It would be extortion…potentially, err likely, unethical.

                  • The objective is not to let people die OR let their houses burn down. Whatever system that is devised to encourage fair payment and to get reimbursement from scofflaws is fine—as long as it doesn’t involve sanctioning firefighters standing around while people burn OR their houses burn down. If you are going to make this argument, make it for letting people die too. Both consequences are unconscionable—if the firefighters can do one to a non-payer, the same argument holds for the other. A society that allows a member’s house to burn has been corrupted, and that’s all there is to it. That’s a realm that saps humanity from civilization. I am an advocate of personal responsibility, but there needs to be a balance.

                    • This issue has already been discussed in the threads above. There IS a difference between the protection of LIFE and protection of PROPERTY when individuals are derelict of their social responsibilities. If the firefighters had gone to the housefire and determined that NO PERSON WAS AT RISK, and let the house burn, then I believe they are morally exempt, and indeed that may have been the best reason to show up there when and if the fire dept knew that the parties had not paid.
                      Furthermore, your idea, espoused below, that having the “government” burn down your house for not having paid taxes is the moral equivalent of allowing it to burn through accident that could be foreseeable in the abstract, and whose risk offset could be quantified by the amount of $75 which one voluntarily chooses not to pay, is absurd. You mistake active assault by an overpowering entity, the “state,” with an individual’s own choice to avoid paying for protection against the unforeseeable, or the fractionally likely foreseeable.

                  • This actually replies to your subsequent post, but the system doesn’t allow the thread to continue there.

                    The comparison is far from absurd; it’s apt. In both cases, the action of the government entity intentionally results in the burning of the home. When Regina withholds the heart medicine from her husband in the throes of a heart attack in “The Little Foxes,” she’s killing him, and she and he know it. As in that situation, a trusted entity is witholding aid that it can render and has an obligation to render by its presence at the scene. I’d have an easier time accepting the conduct of the County—not easy, but easiER, if the firefighters didn’t respond at all. That;s bad, but if they don’t arrive on the scene, they can’t rescue anyone. But they were on the scene. Just like Regina.

                • Kudos for a terrific and clear structure. BUT…
                  what you and my old pal Peter seem to miss is that there is no need for a system that requires letting people’s homes burn to enforce fee collection. Any such system is inherently unethical, because it rots the bonds of society, community, and human compassion. Since there is no need for such a vicious system to address the problem, a community that adopts it is by definition irresponsible. If is not like the individual mandate, because fire control is a core government function, and providing health care is not, can not and should not be. Since it is a necessary government function, everyone should pay for it, just like they should pay for roads and schools. A system that allows people to act badly and then has to punish them excessively when they do is irrational and corrupting.

                  I’ll probably add something like this to the original post, since it should have been clarified at the beginning. But think of all the fun we would have missed!

                  • Jack, you’re wrong about fire protection being some “essential government function.” Where is it written in the Constitution that citizens of the republic are entitled to fire protection? There are very few “essential functions” of government, primarily defense and maintaining the integrity of the currency, and the “value of weights and measures,” and we can see what happens when government oversteps its concept of “defense” and becomes an empire-builder on the one hand, and abrogates its responsibility and gives the latter over to a private central bank on the other hand. In early history, buildings burned until local, VOLUNTARY fire associations were created, by none other than Ben Franklin, if I recall correctly. What so often happens, is that people forget the voluntary nature of many such civic goods, and then propose that government take them over, which leads to all the things that are predictable from such an evolution.
                    In addition, it is not the exclusion of freeloaders from social benefits that create the “rot” of the bonds of society, but rather the prevalence and further encouragement of such people that do.

  5. Hi there! I’m a new reader to your blog, and am enjoying it very much. While I generally agree with you on many of your posts, in this case, I agree with Tim and Michael. I won’t reiterate their very excellent points, but just make a few of my own.

    It seems to me you are committing an ethical fallacy yourself by arguing from emotion rather than principle. You feel sorry for the person who is losing all of her items; to you, the consequences are “beyond the pale.” But it is really Ms. Bell who has been unethical. She has not paid to support the volunteer fire department but expects its services, and wishes to extort these services through sympathy. (I would digress here to point out how offensive, and rightly so, you found that ploy when applied to an airfare refund.) If everyone took her approach, the volunteer fire department would go out of business and everyone in the area would be at greater risk.

    I also think you miss the mark when you imply that by saving people’s lives, but not their property, the county is somehow at fault or behaving inconsistently by not saving the property as well. Nonsense. The ethical imperative to save a life when possible is vital to the continuation of the human species; but there is no corresponding imperative to save someone’s property. Especially when saving that property puts more lives as risk, as well I know today here in Massachusetts, where one firefighter died last night and the other is in critical condition due to a 4-alarm blaze in Worcester. Even more key, Ms. Bell showed herself unwilling to enter into the social compact by paying the fee, so why should society then waive the rules for her?

    I’d be interested in hearing a response from you saying what ethical principle you feel has been violated, rather than basing your call on how uncomfortable the situation makes you feel. (Since posting is such a blunt tool, I just want to say that I mean that last sentence sincerely and not snarkily.)

    • I read my piece over twice after reading your comment to find where I gave the impression that I was basing my opinion on how the conduct of the fire department made me “feel.” I have no idea. The act lacks kindness, compassion and ignores the basic societal human compact we have to look out for each other. I would expect, with no fire department, the neighborhood to chip in and try to help a neighbor put out the fire. That’s what communities did before fire companies. But you are arguing that when someone fails to pay 75 bucks, nobody should help, except when a lucky cheapskate who has an invalid inside his house? So I am to gather that, by your analysis, a homeowner who has helpless people to protect and is even more irresponsible by cheaping out of the 75 bucks, should nonetheless get the service of the firefighters while the solo owner should not? You are making the arbitrary line between life and property, but there is no clear reason to do that. Or, if the fire company has arrived and does nothing, does that wipe out the traditional obligation to help a neighbor? What neighbor will help put out a fire if the firefighters are standing and watching?

      Human beings have a duty to rescue. They also have a duty to pay their fair share of community expenses. It’s what we call an ethics conflict, and since the harm of losing a house is far, far worse than the harm of being short 75 bucks, it is absurd, AND callous, AND illogical, AND cruel to inflict the greater harm to discourage the lesser.

      I also didn’t say that the non-paying homeowners were not unethical–in fact, I said the opposite. From the earlier piece (which was linked to, meaning that I assume you will read it before accusing me of not saying things I did say):

      This story makes neither ethical nor logical sense. To begin with, Cranick is a fool, an unethical fool, and a cheap unethical fool. “I thought they’d come out and put it out, even if you hadn’t paid your $75, but I was wrong,” he said as a sifted through the ashes. I see. He decided to stiff the firefighters and the city of South Fulton, and take the service anyway. This is cosmic justice for Gene Cranick, if indeed he refused to pay. (In a televised interview, Cranick disputed this, and said he forgot.)

      Either way, nobody deserves to have his house burn down.

      The fire department was equally wrong, and maybe more so.

      Let me ask you this: would you advocate a law that decreed that a person not paying his taxes should have his house burned down by the government? I suspect not. I suspect you would regard that as monstrous. I see little difference here—the government punishes a citizen for a lousy 75 bucks by letting his or her home burn down. Not proportional, not reasonable, and not fair. AND inherently antisocial and un-American, which is why such systems have largely disappeared. They undermine core ethical values, and they violate the Golden Rule, as clear as day.

      I should add that the system is stupid, and rigged to fail. What if there is a record-keeping mistake, and a home-owner really did pay but the records say otherwise? (This has happened with my electric bill, and for a lot more than 75 bucks. Luckily, my house didn’t burn down. What if the fire of a neighbor who didn’t pay will damage the home of a homeowner who did pay? What if he paid half, or paid it all but the check bounced due to a bank error? It’s a dangerous system, as well as an inhumane one.

      I am amazed so many people are trying to defend it.

      • I don’t have much time so I’ll have to keep this brief. I’m only going to answer some of your points now; I may get to the others later.

        You say the act lacks compassion, et. al. However, being ethical is about doing what is right, and therefore, it involves justice as well as compassion. Compassion can often trump justice in situations where others won’t be hurt by ignoring what it just, but that is not the case in this circumstance. “Compassion” to Ms. Bell invokes the very real possibility of the system collapsing, as no one has any incentive to pay up front and free-riders swamp the system. In the end, those who were willing to play by the rules will be hurt when there is no fire service at all. You seem to not admit this as a real possibility.

        In terms of the issue about saving lives vs. property, I am probably more horrible than you suppose. I assume that if a life were in danger, the fire department would arrive at the home of the free-rider and do only the minimum fire-fighting necessary to save the life in question. If, after that person was safe, the house was still on fire, they should let it burn. I can’t tell from the article if that is not the practice; if it isn’t, I agree with you that the policy is inconsistent and unfair. Do you know this for sure, or were you just assuming that they would then continue to save the house?

        You say you are amazed that so many people are defending this policy. I suspect you are amazed because you have never suffered a tragedy of the commons in your own life. I am sure many of the defenders here, like me, have seen first-hand a beneficial program collapsed by free-loaders.

  6. Surely, we can find SOME middle ground here? Maybe if someone hasn’t paid the $75, they STILL save the house, but the NEXT time, if they STILL haven’t paid, THEN they say “You had plenty of warning.” Or maybe a 3 strikes thing (who has FOUR fires at one house)?

    If I was a firefighter, I might have just said, “Screw this, I am putting out this fire because that’s what firefighters do. And when I’m done, I’m taking something from your house worth approximately $75. Like that new saucepan. I could use one of those. Not happy with that? You know what’s the funny thing about this saucepan? It might not have melted at 1200 degrees and you might have pulled it intact from the rubble that was your life. You can not pay this fee if you really think it’s wise, and you’ll be poorer one saucepan, but my way of doing things leaves you with everything ELSE intact.

    “Alright, fine. Keep your damn saucepan. Hey, buddies, anyone who helps me put out this fire gets a free lunch! I heard there’s food in that burning trailer, but we have to save it. We gotta EARN that $75 worth of Wonder Bread and Diet Coke.”

    Are firefighters still supposed to be heroes? Because standing next to a building while it burns doesn’t sound heroic.

  7. What happens if you visit Obion County and your car or motor home catches on fire? As any visitors will have not paid the $75 I presume the Fire Department will let it burn. If this is so, then it is a very flawed system as it can not possibly cover everyone.

    • Pretty unlikely, since visitors would have no prior warning, and no ongoing and continuing claim to property and the accompanying choice whether or not to protect it in that particular fire district. This is codified in some countries, such as Panama, where visitors for less than 30 days who register in a local hotel have up to $8000 accidental injury benefits from the Republic of Panama, but if you stay longer, or you stay with locals, you don’t.

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