The city of South Fulton, TN is getting a lot of media coverage this week because the city’s firefighters intentionally let someone’s house burn to the ground. Why did they do this? Because the homeowners in question did not pay a $75 fire protection fee. Sounds pretty absurd and ridiculous, right? Sounds like the sort of thing that might justifiably cause a good old-fashioned media and public opinion pile-on, right ?
Not so fast. The homeowners in question did not actually live in South Fulton (which you will note, if you consult Google maps, is not located near urban areas nor areas associated with great affluence). They actually lived outside the city limits of South Fulton – which has a fire department that I am sure does its dead level best to put out every single fire that occurs within the South Fulton city limits. Somewhere along the line, people who lived outside South Fulton came to depend on the South Fulton FD for services. My guess is that many of these people live in unincorporated areas (which is difficult to do, believe it or not, even in Northwest Tennessee). These people, of course, do not pay any city property taxes. At some point, the city of South Fulton decided that it could not afford to continue servicing the entire rural area for miles around, and instituted a policy. This policy said that those who lived outside the city limits would have to pay for fire service just like city residents do. City residents pay for it with their taxes – non-city residents would be required to pay a $75 fee. If non-city residents don’t want to pay the fee, no sweat. The City of South Fulton cannot make you pay it (like they can make you pay taxes). However, if your house catches fire and you want the South Fulton FD to say it, you had better hope that you have $2,200 cash handy, otherwise we will let your house burn to the ground. No seriously, we mean it.
I guess maybe the first people to run afoul of this policy might have claimed actual surprise even given the City’s express warnings that it really was serious. However, last year another house in a rural area burned and the owner did not pay the fire protection fee. The South Fulton FD let his house burn. This created a media storm locally and nationally. Everyone in the country – and certainly everyone in Obion County, Tennessee, knew that the city meant business. Heck, the homeowners in question admitted that they personally had actual knowledge that the city would let their house burn:
Bell and her boyfriend said they were aware of the policy, but thought a fire would never happen to them.
Get it? They knew what would happen, they took a calculated risk, they ended up holding the short end of the stick, and now everyone is somehow upset at the city of South Fulton over what has transpired. In my view, the people who are criticizing the City of South Fulton are everything that is wrong with America. The political and PR pressure being exerted on city officials (who, as politicians, are as averse to these things as gremlins are to sunlight) is enormous. A sizeable number of people are apparently of the belief that the City of South Fulton simply must continue to provide fire protection services to people who are beyond its power to tax and who refuse to pay for them voluntarily. This despite the fact that the people who have chosen to live in unincorporated areas are surely saving well over a paltry $75 a year by not having to pay city property taxes.
I get that the reaction might be quite different here if the City of South Fulton were refusing to provide, say, trash removal services. Somewhere along the line we have come to believe that everyone is entitled to vital services regardless of ability (or even willingness) to pay. In the short term, America’s overall prosperity and capacity to borrow and/or print money has allowed this model to “succeed.” Plus, the American sense of civic duty still compels enough people to actually pay money for services (and things like health insurance) that the system has not yet reached a breaking point. But in the long run, especially in the absence of strong societal cohesiveness and social mores that harshly punish freeloading behavior, this model is unsustainable. One of two things will inevitably happen: either the government will eventually just start taxing people directly to pay for the service, or they will have to institute a policy like the City of South Fulton’s fire protection policy, and actually mean it.
As long as the media and the general public continue to exert pressure on city, state, and local governments (or worse, purely private entities) to provide essential services no matter what – even in the face of a deliberate and knowing refusal to pay a very nominal fee – we are heading rapidly towards the socialization of everything (beginning but not ending with the institution of a single-payer healthcare system). Because otherwise, the person who pays the $75 fee faces exactly the same risk as the person who doesn’t pay the $75 fee (which is to say, none at all), and if that sort of thing goes on long enough, no one pays the $75 fee voluntarily. The end result is that the government is forced to either shut down the program in question or just take the $75 by force, and which choice is made will inevitably depend on the popularity of the program in question.
If this sort of choice seems unappealing to everyone (and I hope that it does), then I hope we can all take a breath and re-examine how we view the actions taken by the City of South Fulton, TN. Yes, there is room for sympathy for a family who has lost their home to a fire (which often happens even to people who live in urban areas with well-funded fire departments who are not under orders to refuse service to their house). However, there ought not be room for outrage and disgust towards the people in city government who are faced with the hard task of budgeting for their own voters and taxpayers. They instituted a system which provided people with the freedom to choose whether they wanted to accept an admittedly small risk or pay an admittedly small fee. Everyone who respects the free market should respect the City of South Fulton for offering that choice, and should likewise respect the results that choice brought about.