Tennessee's Free-Market Utopia Fire

If you haven't heard the story yet, some firefighters in Tennessee showed up to a burning house, found that the owner hadn't paid the annual $75 fee for fire protection, and watched as his house burned to the ground. Besides all the family's belongings, there were three puppies inside.

I don't fault the firefighters. They were following procedure, and under that kind of system, if they put out fires for people who didn't pay, no one would. But that's the problem. It's a thoroughly crappy system. I'll bet more than one of those firefighters was thinking the very same thing as they stood there and watched a house burn down.

Now, you're expecting me to write that this isolated (and admittedly strange) incident points to a larger issue. I won't disappoint. Because this not only points to a larger issue, but specifically refutes a whole line of argument used by anti-tax activists. When people talk about cutting taxes, without fail, they say "waste, fraud, and abuse". The line is used so much that, at the O'Donnell vs. Coons debate for the Delaware senate seat, Wolf Blitzer asked Christine O'Donnell what she'd cut from federal spending and specifically added, "And don't just say waste, fraud and abuse, because everybody says that." (She said she'd cut "waste, fraud, and abuse.")

People like me say, "Be specific. Do you consider public education waste, fraud, or abuse? What about police protection? What about firefighters?"

"No, of course not," we're told. "I mean those other things. The carpet in the statehouse was too expensive. And over here is a guy who is cheating the system to get disability when he seems fine to me. And that public education campaign got one billboard more than was necessary. It all adds up, you know."

And it does. But never to the total these folks want to cut taxes. For example, letting the Bush tax cuts expire would add 3 trillion dollars to the annual budget of the federal government. That's 3,000,000,000,000. 3 million millions. That's $3258 per man, woman, and child. Mostly paid by the top 2% who would still be paying less than they paid under that Robin Hood socialist Ronald Reagan. It would take a lot of cheap carpet, eliminated billboards, and prosecuted fraudulent disability recipients to acquire that amount of money. But it could sure teach a lot of kids, put a lot more cops on the streets, and put out a lot of fires in rural Tennessee.

The Tennesee example shows that the anti-tax jihadists aren't really interested in balancing the budget. That's a red herring. If they were, you'd see Tea Party candidates talking about cutting military spending, Medicare, and Social Security. According to the non-partisan CBO, that's the only way to balance the budget. You could cut all non-discretionary spending and only leave those three programs, and we'd be in the red forever. Read that again. Forever. There just isn't enough coming in to cover the costs of our military and our aging (and increasingly long-lived and medically treated) population. But how many Tea Party candidates will acknowledged this? None. Zip. Rand Paul did before he got out of the primaries. Then the sacred cows became sacred again. But the most holy of holies, the desire to cut taxes for the rich, remains intact, too. And mathematical reality cannot kill either one.

So if these folks aren't really serious about balancing the budget, what do they really want? They'd be the first to tell you that "utopianism" is a bad thing, the origin of progressivism and socialism and all their favorite boogie-men. But if you dangle the notion of a free-market utopia, they salivate. This was one of the dreams of the Bush team: When Saddam was gone, they'd have a sandbox in which to play out this free-market utopia fantasy. It would be great. Adam Smith's invisible hand would rule this new nation, and it would do the work of bringing about democracy and the rule of law because Iraqis would see that these things were in their financial best interest. Paul Bremer's "de-Baathification" program, which was ostensibly designed to get all Saddam loyalists out of the government, was directly connected to turning all kinds of government programs over to private (mostly foreign) companies. Sure, these disaffected former civil servants would run off to join the insurgency and wage a war that would cost U.S. taxpayers over 750 billion dollars (that's a thousand millions, or over $2,400 per man, woman, and child in the U.S.), but a lot of private businesses would make billions in return, and that would eventually sort itself out in the wash. The bloody, bloody wash. And if, in the end, the 100,000 dead Iraqi civilians and 4425 U.S. service members think the cost is too high, well, there's a guy in rural Tennessee who can tell you that you'd better figure out how to pay for a free-market utopia or about half this country will tell you it's your own damned fault.

But why stop at Iraq? Please, please, pick yourself up a copy of Max Berry's novel "Jennifer Government". It's a truly great book, entertaining, funny, fast paced and full of memorable characters and lots of action. It's also the haunting picture of a true free-market utopia. In it, the Nike company decides the best way to get some street cred for their newest shoe line is to hire a mercenary to shoot up some kids waiting in line to buy them. The protagonist, who, like everyone else, takes on the last name of the private company for whom she is currently working, is Jennifer Government. Of course, the privatized government can't just offer an FBI investigation for free using tax payer funds. It's a private company with a bottom line now, too. So Jennifer has to go to the parents of the victims and ask them to pay for her investigation. If she successfully find the killers they will be able to sue them in civil court and may be able to recoup their costs. If not, well, them's the breaks in a free-market utopia. I haven't ruined anything. In fact, I could tell you that her investigation will ultimately lead to a full-on war between Burger King and McDonald's, using the privatized mercenary forces of the U.S. Army and the NRA to wage their war in the streets of the U.S., and I still won't have ruined the book.

Buy a copy.

Enjoy it.

And then tell me it doesn't make you think twice about a strange case of fee-for-service fire protection in rural Tennessee.