Sunday, November 28, 2010

A "Teachable Moment" from Tennessee

"Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master." – George Washington

The battle of “big” vs. “small” government … i.e., between socialism and capitalism … has taken a rather interesting turn. The turn revolves around a recent tragic incident in Tennessee. The New Jersey Star-Ledger editorialized for the big government side. Here is its account of what happened:

Gene Cranick’s home caught fire in rural Tennesee [sic] last week, so the family frantically called 911. But the fire department refused to respond because the Cranicks had forgotten to pay an annual $75 fire protection fee. As Cranick screamed “I’ll pay whatever you want!” into the phone, the fire department was ordered by heartless local officials to ignore him.

Oh, fire engines eventually showed up — when the blaze spread to the home of a neighbor, who had paid the fee. Firefighters extinguished that fire, then watched the rest of Cranick’s house burn to the ground. It’s a wonder they didn’t pop open a bag of marshmallows. The Cranicks lost all of their possessions, three dogs and a cat.

The fire department, of course, is run by the government. Whether the government should run it is another matter. Without getting into that specific debate, let’s assume for the sake of argument that fire departments were private, for-profit businesses. In that event, Cranick's house would probably still be standing. After all, what profit-seeking businessman would turn down a customer who is willing to “pay whatever you want!”

That perspective aside, there are a number of critical issues swirling around this tragedy. The situation here involves somewhat of a twist. The house was in a town not situated within the same jurisdiction as the fire department, which was from a neighboring town. The department offered its services voluntarily and as a courtesy to out-of-town homeowners, for a fee. The Cranicks’ were not tax paying citizens of the fire department’s town. They didn’t pay the out-of-town fee.

Those are the facts. We’ll get into the ethics of the firefighters’ refusal to respond in a bit, as we dissect this editorial. The Editors write:

But hey, this happened in the backwoods of some podunk town. It couldn’t happen here, right?

Not yet, anyway. But if you shrink government enough, this is what you get in the end. And we are inching in that direction, with leaf collection fees, garbage fees and high school sports fees.

Notice how a bizarre situation that none of us will ever have to face gets blurred into a hodgepodge of mundane, everyday concerns that most of us rarely think twice about. Well, why shouldn’t each of us pay for our own “leaf collection fees, garbage fees and high school sports fees”, as we do our utility, auto repair, and a myriad of other “fees”? Are they in the same category as a house on fire? The message is clear: If we suggest shrinking government by taking personal responsibility for these services, rather than cycle our money through government bureaucrats who do them for us, we are in essence asking for the day when the fire department will let our houses burn.

The S-L holds the Tennessee tragedy up as an example of the perils of small government. Here, we must stop to define our terms. What is big government? What is small government? The issue is not merely one of size, nor of semantics. Let’s examine the fundamentals.

A government is a unique institution. Its uniqueness lies in the fact that, in any society, it and it alone holds a legal monopoly on the use of physical force. It is a law-making body whose laws may compel its citizens to act only within its scope. This is as it should be and can only be. A “society” without laws, and a government without the teeth to enforce them, is anarchy. But those laws must have an objective basis in reality, and conform to proper politico-philosophic principles. When a government is limited to using its legalized power of physical force only as a means of protecting the rights of its citizens, as it was originally intended by the Founding Fathers, it is a vital and indispensable necessity of a free society. This is what is referred to as “small” or limited government - the essential premise regularly evaded or blurred by statists. Protection of individual rights is the only legitimate function of government (“To secure these rights, governments are instituted among men”), and the only legitimate basis for taxation. (How that principle relates to the question of whether or not fire departments should be run by government is an issue that is beyond the scope of this article.)

But, when a government steps outside of those limits, it becomes a "big" government and a threat to a free society, to the extent that it strays from its legitimate function. To the extent that a government uses its taxing powers to redistribute wealth or its law-making powers to regulate private behavior … i.e., to violate the rights of its citizens … is the extent to which it losses its legitimacy.

With that in mind, and considering the Star-Ledger’s highlighting of the Cranick tragedy as an example of the scary consequences of small government, let’s go along with its line of reasoning and play “devil’s advocate”. Let’s take a look at some historically recent examples of the abuses of big government: Soviet Gulags, Soviet Ukrainian famine, killing fields of Cambodia, Mao’s “cultural revolution”, China’s Tiananmen Square massacre, Cuba’s political prisons, North Korea’s abused and starving citizenry, Nazi death camps … the list goes on. How about all of the impoverished third world countries, whose destitution results from big dictatorial governments who fail to uphold small government bedrock institutions like property rights and reliable contract law and enforcement. But, these are extremes, you say? OK, how about the current financial crises, which was caused by the federal Reserve central bank, the politicians’ “affordable housing crusades”, and a whole network of interlocking government regulatory agencies and policies.

The Editors ridicule those who “preach the ‘you’re-on-your-own governmental gospel of less’ ”, and implore us to focus on a single example of the alleged treachery of what “less” brings. OK, then, how about the treachery of “more”? How about the devastating consequences of America’s original “death panel”, the federal Food and Drug Administration, under which countless Americans suffer and die needlessly every year while waiting as that agency routinely denies access to promising experimental drugs that it has not yet approved? Being “on your own” means being free to live by the judgement of your own mind. It is the essence of freedom. It means the freedom to associate with others on a voluntary, mutually advantageous basis, including trade and contractual freedom. But, that’s not the way it is meant by the Editors, who see hordes of incompetent loners in need of an imperial bureaucracy to run their lives. The opposite of being “on your own” means being forbidden to do so. It means someone else – someone empowered by the government’s legal monopoly on physical force; someone who, as a private citizen, is not capable of being on his own – making both mundane and critical personal decisions for you. This is the big government that the S-L exploits the Cranick’s tragedy to uphold as the good. Tell that to the victims of the FDA - the countless Cranicks thereof that the S-L ignores – whose health burns to the ground while big government bureaucrats roast marshmallows on their regulatory power.

The S-L states:

“Officials say they couldn’t accept the Cranicks’ money after the fire had started, because that would encourage homeowners to pay only when they needed the service. It’s sound — if morally bankrupt — logic.”

Why is it sound logic? If no one paid for this emergency service until they needed it, then there would be no fire department when they need it. Everyone would then have to “save everything he owns with a trickle from a garden hose” if his house caught fire. That’s what a morally “enlightened” code would mean. (That statement is really a backdoor slap at the critics of ObamaCare’s provision that requires insurance companies to cover new policyholders with “pre-existing conditions”, who use the same “morally bankrupt logic”. The end result of that policy will be the same: no health insurance companies.)

The S-L’s “logic” here is really an attack on the sanctity of contracts. So, let me pose this question: If I fell off of my ladder doing household chores on a weekend, would it be OK for me to file for workmen’s compensation, claiming to have been injured at work on Monday? Why not? I’m injured, and need money to cover my food and medicine while recuperating. That would be fraud, all right. But what the heck, that doesn’t mean those heartless government bureaucrats should deny my claim. After all, I may need the money to buy medicine for my sick child. But, you ask, wouldn’t that encourage a lot more fraud? That’s only “sound — if morally bankrupt — logic”.

Contracts are an indispensable foundation of a free and civil society. They are either a valid, legally enforceable means by which men deal with one another, or they are not. If anyone’s need, at any time, can justify the breaking of contracts or the imposition of involuntary servitude or the seizing of the property or money of others not contractually bound to provide it, then there is no law at all, except for the “law of the jungle”. It is either/or. It’s either the rule of objective law, or the existence of a primitive savage, who can see no reason why he shouldn’t loot and enslave other savages to satisfy his own need. This is the moral ideal upheld by the Editors, who believe that honoring contractual obligations – which demands honesty, integrity, and rationality – amounts to “sound — if morally bankrupt — logic”. And it is precisely the social arrangement of jungle savages that you get when you divorce logic – i.e., reason – from morality.

Does all of this mean that those firefighters shouldn’t have extinguished Cranick’s house fire?

For proper context, we must pause to distinguish between normative ethics – morality as it pertains to the normal course of human events – and an emergency. “Emergency”, by proper definition, pertains to a situation that involves imminent danger, of very short duration, demanding immediate action. This differs fundamentally from every other kind of human endeavor. For example, an insurance company considering an application for a new policy that excludes coverage to the new client for a “pre-existing condition” – a medical condition for which the new client had made no prior contractual arrangement to pay for it – is well within its rights and moral bounds to do so. Likewise, if that company refuses to pay for treatment not covered by its existing insurance contract with the patient, it is acting properly.

These last examples are brought up because some have tried to equate them with the firefighters watching the Cranicks’ house burn. Nothing can be further from the truth or the facts. These are not emergencies. They are the normal course of events, and normative ethics applies: which means, contractual obligations and rational self-interest governs actions. As philosopher Ayn Rand explains:

“The principle that one should help men in an emergency cannot be extended to regard all human suffering as an emergency and to turn the misfortune of some into a first mortgage on the lives of others.” (I am indebted to Ayn Rand, author of The Virtue of Selfishness, for identifying the essential practical and moral fundamentals involved here. See chapter three of that book.)

According to the facts as we know them, township local officials had no legal obligation to service Cranick. But, there is nothing implicit in the moral principle of the sanctity of contracts that would have forbidden those firemen, or their municipal bosses, from acting out of compassion in an emergency. After all, the Cranicks had simply forgotten to pay their fee. “Or what if”, as the S-L hypothesizes, “Cranick didn’t forget? What if he simply couldn’t afford the fee? What if he spent that $75 on medicine for a sick child?” Or even what if he could easily afford it, but didn’t because he irresponsibly decided that “ it could never happen to me”?

There could be any number of reasons why the fee wasn’t paid. Do any of them mean that the firefighters were obligated to respond to Cranick’s 911 call? No. Could they have? Certainly. Should they have? A case can be made that they should have - being available, ready, and able. Cranick could have been billed after the fact. He did, after all, verbally authorize the service with a promise to pay for it (Verbal authorizations, and legally binding verbal contracts, are commonplace in the business world). The experience could have been used as a “teachable moment”, with municipal officials showing the public why paying firefighter fees in a timely manner is the right thing to do and best for avoiding confusion in an emergency.

The “heartless local officials” should have authorized the fire department to extinguish the blaze, in my view, given the circumstances. But, that is not the real issue here. The real issue is: What is the proper role of government?

The Cranick case does nothing to advance the case for “big government”, or diminish the case for “limited” government. That the S-L and others on the Left would use this tragedy to advance their big government agenda, in the face of the bloody historical record of statism, is unconscionable.

The Editors end with this lame comment, getting to the essence of the issue:

So every time you hear a candidate say, “I’m going to run government like a business,” think of George Cranick. And then envision a day when police stand by and watch a rape, because, “Gee, sorry, lady, but you didn’t pay the police fee.”

One of the gimmicks used by statists to justify the latest expansion of government is to smuggle in a false choice: totalitarianism or anarchy. It’s either a government that runs fire departments or leaf collection or high school sports or garbage collection or health care or banks or auto companies or whatever whoever decides to call a “vital” service; or it’s rapists running wild. The above statement from the editorial is a manifestation of that premise. Missing from that choice is the original American vision of a limited government that protects, but does not violate, individual rights.

Never mind protests that total control is not really the goal. Once you’ve abandoned political principles, there is no way to draw a line between where government control ends and freedom begins. The Founding Fathers defined those principles. Statists have been undermining them ever since, trivializing them as quaint notions that are no longer relevant, in order to pave the road for their latest statist initiatives. The Star-Ledger and most modern Leftists do not want a totalitarian state, but as Ayn Rand has observed: “Principles, like laws of nature, continue to operate, whether men choose to recognized them or not…”. Once the principle that a government may run any aspect of our lives is accepted, then you’ve accepted the premise that the government can run all aspects of our lives. Once the principle of unalienable individual rights is abandoned, the logic of events leads inexorably to the totalitarian state – to Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Red China, Soviet Russia, Imperial Japan, or to any mutation of such… The Star-Ledger doesn’t want that. No one wants that. But the trend toward that end in America is clearly evident to anyone with the courage to think objectively.

A government is not, and can never be, “run … like a business”. A business can not legally use force, a government can. A business can not force anyone to buy its products, nor can anyone who has not purchased its products or otherwise met its terms of sale demand its products be taken by force. A “small” government is one that is constitutionally bound to use its monopoly on the use of physical force only to protect the rights of its citizens – which means, to stop and apprehend a rapist. It is this protective function, in fact, that allows you to be “on your own” – from both private criminals and the legal big government kind.

1 comment:

Katrina said...

Just a brief remark, there have in the past been completely private fire departments with no government interference to speak of, and they did let homes burn the ground. They have to, or else no one would pay the $75 fee. The business acts like insurance. You don't get to wait until you wreck your car to buy insurance. Besides, "I'll pay whatever you want!" will always mean "I will pay anything up to the amount all this stuff costs me to replace!" Not to mention that there won't be time to run a credit check. I'm guessing the guy who skimped on a $75 fee isn't exactly rolling in dough. You can't run a business by relying on the promises of desperate people.

There was another model for private fire fighting, more common in densely populated areas. The fire brigade would save your structure, but all the contents of the structure would belong to them.

If you go with the annual fee business model, you can't afford to let anyone out of paying the fee. You'd have to charge something significantly in excess of the value of the contents of the home to avoid adverse selection issues, in which case no rational person would take the offer.