In colonial Philadelphia, firefighters were employed by
private insurance companies which, of course, had financial incentives to
minimize damage to their clients’ properties. Plaques with the insurance
company’s insignia were placed on buildings, so that the fire fighters would
know whether or not it was their “business” to put out the fires on the
premises. (These plaques are often found today in antique shops). . If a
fire alarm was answered by a cadre of fire-fighters from the “wrong”
company, that was just tough luck. “Burn, baby, burn!” Many structures were
lost while competing companies tried to sort out which was authorized to put
out the fire. Many more adjoining structures were consumed by fires that
were oblivious to property lines.
Occasionally, when the building’s insurance affiliation
was in some doubt, competing fire companies would fight each other for the
privilege of putting out the fire, resulting in more water aimed at fire
fighters than at burning buildings.
Eventually, the absurdity and outright danger of this
system led one prominent Philadelphia citizen to come up with the idea of a
publicly funded and administered fire department.
His name was Benjamin Franklin: America’s first
anti-free-enterprise commie pinko nut-case.
Fires, Franklin recognized, are not reducible to
individual incidents affecting particular structures. They are public
threats to communities at large. Accordingly, the task of fighting fires is
appropriately assigned to municipal agencies, managed and financed by the
community, which means, of course by the government.
Franklin’s subversive left-wing ideas were extended to
include libraries, post offices, and public schools, and, if we are to
believe some of today’s self-described “conservatives,” it’s been downhill
Strange, isn't it? One might suppose that eventually,
some principles and practices in our political order might be settled, once
and for all -- simply beyond rational dispute. No one is arguing for a
hereditary monarch, with a “divine right” to rule over us. No one seriously
supports the reinstatement of chattel slavery. No one believes that
homosexuals, Sabbath workers and disobedient children should be stoned to
death. (Well, almost no one – there are, after all, a few “Christian
Dominionists” still at large).
And almost no one has questioned the wisdom of Benjamin
Franklin’s establishment in Philadelphia in 1736, of the first municipal
fire department in colonial America.
Not until now.
For after two hundred and seventy-one years of
uncontested proof of the advantages of public fire-fighting institutions,
this simple truth does not faze the libertarians and the regressives
(self-described “conservatives”). Some of them are now proposing a giant
step backward to privatized fire fighting. As
reports in The Nation:
Just look at what is happening in Southern
California. Even as wildfires devoured whole swaths of the region, some
homes in the heart of the inferno were left intact, as if saved by a
higher power. But it wasn't the hand of God; in several cases it was the
handiwork of Firebreak Spray Systems. Firebreak is a special service
offered to customers of insurance giant American International Group
(AIG)--but only if they happen to live in the wealthiest ZIP codes in
the country. Members of the company's Private Client Group pay an
average of $19,000 to have their homes sprayed with fire retardant.
During the wildfires, the "mobile units"--racing around in red
firetrucks--even extinguished fires for their clients.
One customer described a scene of modern-day
Revelation. "Just picture it. Here you are in that raging wildfire.
Smoke everywhere. Flames everywhere. Plumes of smoke coming up over the
hills," he told the Los Angeles Times. "Here's a couple guys showing up
in what looks like a firetruck who are experts trained in fighting
wildfire and they're there specifically to protect your home."
And your home alone. "There were a few instances,"
one of the private firefighters told Bloomberg News, "where we were
spraying and the neighbor's house went up like a candle." With public
fire departments cut to the bone, gone are the days of Rapid Response,
when everyone was entitled to equal protection.
Privatized fire fighting? It was a lousy idea in Ben
Franklin’s time, and it is lousy idea today.
Do we really need to explain why this is so?
Incredibly, it appears that we do.
Privatized fire fighting is inefficient.
Several separate and uncoordinated fire crews struggling to save separate
individual homes are far less efficient than a large, integrated and
strategically organized “army” of fire-fighters. Add up the costs of
manpower, equipment and losses to the fires, and the latter, coordinated,
effort will always win, hands down. This will be so, even if every structure
in the area is “protected” by one or another private company of
“responders.” Imagine, for example, a street in which a line of houses is
insured and protected, sequentially from left to right, by the fire crews of
Acme, Inc., Gecko, Inc., Good Hands, Inc., Acme, Inc., Gecko, Inc., Good
Hands, Inc. – then add a few more companies, in random order, as you
continue down the street. See what I mean? It’s far less expensive and more
efficient if one agency is protecting the neighborhood as a unit. But more
significantly, this example demonstrates that:
Privatized fire fighting is ineffective.
The approach described above – several independent companies protecting
individual homes, randomly situated – is comparable to opposing an invading
army with individual local police and sheriff departments. An invading army
attacking with an integrated force and battle plan can only be defeated by
an opposing army with a superior integrated force and battle plan. Supply
lines, effective use of available equipment, deployment of personnel,
geographical contingencies, must all be taken into account by the opposing
generals as they plan attacks, defenses and counter-attacks. Indefensible
lands must be yielded and their populations abandoned so that forces might
regroup on defensible terrain. Command decisions must be communicated intact
through the company commanders to the individual soldiers. Decisive
advantage is enjoyed by the side with the accurate “Big Picture” of the
entire battle, a “picture” that changes as the battle evolves.
Similarly, the massive wildfires that ravaged southern
California in October and November, 2003,
and again last month, had to be responded to strategically – with a
consideration of available resources, of terrain, and of priorities. “The
Big Picture.” Thus a dozen homes, located beyond a defensible fire line (a
road or a stream), might have to be sacrificed so that several hundred might
be saved. Structures close to water sources and to open roads have higher
priority than other structures that are isolated and offer poor means of
escape for the fire fighters. The wealth or the insurance arrangements of
the respective owners are irrelevant to the strategic planning of the fire
Community pre-planning and preparation are also essential
to disaster management. For example, last month, in the “Grass Valley” fire
near my home, the mansions of the "have mores" at Lake Arrowhead were
protected by the removal of a million and a half dead and diseased trees by
order of the “big government” U.S. Forest Service, and by the local
government requirement that flammable brush be removed from the modest homes
of the “proletariat.” Cooperative community action combined with a
large-scale coordinated response by professional fire-fighters saved the
day, as the fire was contained to 1200 acres and the loss of about two
hundred out of ten thousand homes..
California Wildfires and Right Wing Smoke”).
In contrast, a private fire crew, “contracted” to save
this particular house at 1234 My Castle Circle (not 1232 and not 1236), has
no “big picture” in mind. The total concern of the crew is this house, and
this house only.
Clearly, it’s a helluva way to fight a fire.
Privatized fire fighting is immoral. The
determined regressive might reply that the neighborhood could avoid the
“this house but not that house” problem by agreeing to hire a single private
fire fighting company. (However, there would remain the “this neighborhood
but not that neighborhood” problem. But let that pass). All members of the
neighborhood would then be required to pay a fee to the company –
“required,” because those who might otherwise not pay would nonetheless be
at least partially protected by the fee-payers, i.e., they would be “free
riders.” Hence a "coercion" (and implied "theft of property") detested by
Ayn Rand and the libertarians.
But this scheme puts the “regressive” neighborhood
perilously close to installing a public fire department. What’s in a name?
Call the neighborhood a “town,” the fee “taxes,” and the fire company a
“fire department,” and what is the practical difference?
There is this difference: because of the high fees (due
to the inefficiency problem, above) the neighborhood described here would
have to be comprised of very wealthy home owners. And having paid exorbitant
fees for individual fire protection, they would not be inclined to pay taxes
to support city, county and state fire fighting agencies. In fact, San Diego
County was ill-prepared for the fires of last month, due to successful
tax-cutting proposals by anti-tax, anti-government conservative Republicans.
Accordingly, a privatization of fire protection, along
with other emergency management services, increases and solidifies the
stratification of society into the “have-nots” and “the have-mores.” “I have
mine – you’re on your own.” The community then encompasses the neighborhood,
but no more. Beyond the neighborhood is another country. Gone is the civic
friendship that binds a nation together – the “equal justice under law,” the
shared covenant enshrined in the founding documents of the republic, the
sense that the national economy is a cooperative venture comprised of
indispensable components: workers, investors, managers, and government.
Instead, we have George Bush’s “ownership society,” wherein today
wealthiest one percent of the population owns more than the bottom
ninety percent., and that “ownership” of the oligarchs
Decarde: Economic Disparity at the Century's Turn"). Included in
that one-percent of the country effectively “owned” by the “have-mores” are privatized
fire and other emergency services, the media, the courts, private
armies, the paperless touch-screen machines that count our votes and the
secret software that compiles election returns, and, finally, via
lobbyists and campaign contributions, the Congress of the United States.
This concentration of wealth and this privatization of
essential public services and government functions are both symptoms and
causes of a failing democracy and a disintegrating nation.
Are There Public Goods?
"Government is not the solution," Ronald Reagan
proclaimed in his first inaugural address, "government is the problem."
Accordingly, the libertarian right contends, virtually all economic and
social institutions are better managed when privatized and unregulated.
According to this libertarian theory, the greed (i.e., “profit motive”) of
investing private individuals is, in virtually all cases, mystically
transformed into the optimum public good. The exceptions are the police, the
military, the courts and the legislatures which, they concede, are properly
confined to “the public sector.”
But is it just possible that old Ben Franklin had a
point? Are we not all better off now that the fire department doesn’t look
first for the insurance medallion on our homes before they turn on the
hoses? Isn’t the function of the military to defend the country – all of us,
rich and poor, male and female, white and “other” – from foreign enemies,
rather than enrich the industries that supply the armed forces? And
shouldn’t the members of Congress represent the public at large, and not the
private corporations and individuals that finance their campaigns?
The issue turns on the question of whether or not there
are such things as “public goods” – in fact, on whether there is such a
thing as a “public” (or “society”) at all. Dame Margaret Thatcher, Ronnie
Reagan’s favorite Brit, apparently didn’t think so when she famously wrote
“There is no such thing as society, there are only individuals and
As noted above, fire protection is clearly a public good,
since fires are without conscience and completely oblivious to the concept
of property or property boundaries.
The absurdity of uncompromising privatism and market
absolutism is on full display when applied to environmental policy. The
libertarian Robert J. Smith writes:
“The problems of environmental degradation,
pollution, overexploitation of natural resources, and depletion of
wildlife all derive from their being treated as common property
resources. Whenever we find an approach to the extension of
private property rights in these areas, we find superior results.”
("Privatizing the Environment," Policy Review, Spring, 1982,
p.42-3, my emphasis)
It thus follows that I own, not only my property, but
also the atmosphere above it and the ground below it. Can I then prohibit
fly-overs by aircraft? Can I sue if the inflow to the aquifer beneath me is
contaminated? Who, then? Are the “owners” of the insects that pollinate my
orchards entitled to charge me for the service? The mind boggles. And it
gets even worse (as I elaborate in Section III of my
Liberty for Some”).
The privatization regime being proposed by the
libertarians and the GOP is inherently unstable, unequal, and eventually
oppressive. Wealth and power act in behalf of and enhance wealth and power,
ever loosening the constraint of checks and balances, as it proceeds to
absorb government and make it an instrument in behalf of wealth and power.
The statistics tell it all: today, the average CEO of a Fortune 500 company
earns in half a day, what his median worker earns in a year (a ratio of 500
to 1). Twenty years ago, the ratio was 40 to 1. Today, one percent of the US
households own almost 40% of the nation’s wealth – twice that of the 1970s.
Economic Disparity at the Century's Turn"). With the coming abolition of taxes on estates, dividends and capital gains, that inequality can only accelerate, as Leona Helmsley’s maxim -- “taxes are for the little people” – achieves full
Furthermore, the privatizers’ celebration of “competitive
enterprise” is essentially hypocritical. Capitalists hate competition, as
they relentless strive to build monopolies and crush their competitors. All
that stands in their way are anti-trust laws and the courts – which is to
But let us stop well short of the deep end. Privatization
and free enterprise, constrained by popular government, are fine ideals, the
applications of which have undoubtedly yielded great benefits to mankind.
Moreover, government regulation can often be excessive and a damned nuisance
to the private entrepreneur. Private enterprise should surely count for
something. But not for everything. Adam Smith was right: “the invisible
hand” of the market place can, without plan or intention, “promote ... the
public interest.” But we put ourselves in great peril if we fail to
acknowledge “the back of the invisible hand” – the tragedy of the commons –
whereby the unregulated pursuit of self interest by the wealthy and powerful
becomes parasitic upon, and eventually destroys, the well-ordered society of
just laws, common consent, and an abundance of skilled and educated workers
who produce and secure that wealth.
Both the radical anarchism of the Busheviks and the
communism of Lenin and Stalin share the attribute of uncompromising
dogmatism: in both cases, these are doctrines which are assumed, apart from
experience and common sense, to apply to the real world, fully formed and
fully ready to be imposed upon that reality. These are dogmas for which
pragmatism and corrective feedback have no part. Both libertarianism and
communism err in proposing extreme, simplistic and doctrinaire prescriptions
for conditions that are necessarily complex: communism by condemning all
property, and libertarians by condemning all public governmental functions,
other than that of the “watchmen” (police and military) and the courts. (Cf.
Lessons from Russia” ).
The complex arena of human economic and social behavior
has no place for such simplistic dogmas. Throughout our illustrious and
prosperous history, the United States has developed a society and an economy
that is a splendid mix of private enterprise, civic association and public
service. We have learned how to progress through the trials, errors and
successes of countless policy experiments, all leading to refinements and
compromises amongst competing parties and interests, with the excesses of
both government and private interests constrained by the rule of law and
finely honed checks and balances.
The regressives have no use for these complexities,
caveats and constraints. They are comfortable in their assurance that they
already have all the answers. All that remains is for them to serve their
corporate sponsors, and, as GOP activist Grover Norquist crudely puts it,
drown the beast (namely our constitutional republic) in the bathtub.
With that demise we will see the end of Social Security,
Medicare, Head Start, the Environmental Protection Agency, to just begin a
recitation of a very long list. Vouchers will drain support and funding from
the public schools, and the crippled social services will be forced to
attach themselves to religious organizations in order to qualify for
“faith-based” funding. The privatized replacements for the current
government social services – the insurance companies, the HMOs, the private
schools, etc. – will, of course, have as their prime objectives, the
enrichment of their stockholders and corporate officers, rather than service
to the public. And oversight and reform of these private institutions will
be out of reach of political institutions: elections, legislatures, and the
This will be a very different country, virtually
unimaginable to most American citizens today, but familiar to those who are
acquainted with third world kleptocracies in Central America, Africa and
This will be a country that the public at large will not
want. But when, to their great regret and sorrow they discover this, it will
be too late to turn back.
The founders of our republic, let us never forget, recognized the
inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (rather
than simple “property”).. Furthermore, they acknowledged that “to secure
these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just
powers from the consent of the governed.” And among the six functions of
government enumerated in the Preamble to our Constitution are, “to insure
domestic tranquility” and “to promote the general welfare.”
This government – our government – is what the Bush and
his supporters wish to “drown in a bathtub!” They desire this, firm in the
conviction that a disconnected aggregate of self-serving private
individuals, in absolute control of their private property, will serve us
Are you willing to allow these radical anarchists to try
out this bold experiment on the rest of us?
If not, then what do you propose to do about it?