Pay-for-spray: Pre-existing Condition Redux

True story: A man lives in a county where residents must pay $75 at the beginning of each year if they want fire protection from a nearby city. The man’s house caught fire. The man never paid the $75, so the city didn’t save his house.

I couldn’t have designed a better case study for the polar ideals of American legislation if I tried! Don’t get me wrong — it sucks to have anyone’s house burn down, but I absolutely love this as a case study.

First, it’s amazing what stance people take when legislation is not directly labeled with a political party. If you peruse the forums discussing this incident you’ll find people affiliated with a particular party arguing for an ideal that’s completely opposite that party’s ideals. I love when people start to think on their own!

Second, it’s such a simple, stark contrast between raw emotion and economic reality.

Raw emotion: You’ve got to help the guy out! It’s not humane to let the man’s house burn down over $75! What kind of a messed up mayor or firefighter could stand around and watch this happen! This is the reaction that most people have expressed. When viewing a single incident with such strong, emotional ties, it’s also the easiest reaction to have and the hardest to reason against without feeling/appearing evil.

Economic reality: The fire department is not a charity. It has bills to pay. If the fire department puts out the fire without a penalty, why would anyone else ever pay $75 when they know they have fire protection regardless? If nobody pays the $75, there’s no fire department.

So, what’s more messed up? Having a man’s house burn down because he didn’t pay the $75 or not having a fire department at all because nobody pays $75?

This is a classic demonstration of a pre-existing condition. I recently wrote about these concepts in my Insurance and Pre-existing Conditions post, but I can’t help but re-iterate: accepting and supporting pre-existing conditions works for charities, not businesses. Fire departments and insurance companies are businesses regardless of the tragedies they deal with. If they don’t pay their bills, they no longer exist.

The main purpose of this post is to get people thinking regardless of my stance on the issue. Even so, I do think there’s room for middle ground in this particular case. In reality I would have put the fire out anyway and levied a fine high enough to encourage other homeowners to continue to pay the $75. What would you have done and why? Also, how do you feel about a-la-carte government (e.g., pay for fire protection only if you want it)? I’d love to hear what you have to say.

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