Ethics and fire fighting

I read this column in the NYT by Randy Cohen – The Ethicist and I was a bit surprised. I have seen columns written by agony aunts, sexperts, taxperts, career counselors etc etc, but one on ethics (exclude magazines with a religious flavor)?

Anyway, a person writes in asking that if some people in a community don’t pay for the purchase of fire fighting equipment, should such equipment be used when a non-contributor’s house is on fire? Cohen says-

You must. You would accept help from people 45 minutes away. How can you deny it to your neighbors? (I hate to use an ugly word like “hypocrite,” so picture it in a lovely floral typeface.)

Your alternatives are unappealing.

If you turn your fancy new hose on a nonpaying neighbor’s burning house, he is a free rider, exploiting your prudence. If you refuse, you are coldhearted. Either way, this privatized approach to mutual hazard will end in tears. That’s why much of the world has abandoned it in favor of community-wide solutions.

I don’t agree with “hypocrite in floral typeface”, but Cohen raises many valid points (including the fact that an uncontrolled fire may spread to other houses), and concludes by saying – extinguish the fire and bill the fellow heavily for the service.

I have a slightly different opinion. The people who refused to pay have basically said that they can manage things on their own after considering all the risks involved – they have decided to act penny wise pound foolish. So the private property equivalent of the medical DNR applies – Do Not Extinguish. We have two scenarios here-

  1. As long as other houses in the neighborhood are at a safe distance, the house should be allowed to go up in flames.
  2. If the houses are so located that the fire could easily spread to other houses, then use the equipment and extinguish the fire.

In the first case, if (and only if) the non-contributor comes running for help, extinguish the fire and charge him. In the second case, since extinguishing the fire is in the interest of the contributors, billing the owner of the burning house makes no sense at all. Can a case be made under tort law? Maybe.

All this sounds strange, but there have been cases where fire fighters have let houses burn down because of unpaid fees. Further, letting the government into the business becomes very dangerous, as this op-ed on wildfires shows.

PS: While googling for info on libertarianism and firefighting, I came across this article on Murray Rothbard. I have read one book by him, and am slowly reading “For a New Liberty”, but I will say this – as of today, if there is someone out there who can change my mind about Rand’s theory of necessity of government, it will probably be Rothbard.

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