Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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The Gadfly Bytes -- November 20, 2007

Privatized Hell

By Ernest Partridge
Co-Editor, "The Crisis Papers."

June 23, 2003 -- November 20, 2007

Combining "Privatized Hell" (2003) with "Privatized Hell Revisited" (2007)

Adapted for inclusion in Chapter Eight of Conscience of a Progressive.


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 ever since.

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 Naomi Klein 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 fighters.

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..   “The 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 the wealthiest one percent of the population owns more than the bottom ninety percent., and that “ownership” of the oligarchs is increasing.  (See "Divided 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 families.” (Thatcher)

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 “With 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. ("Divided Decarde: 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 realization.

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 say, government.

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. “Two 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 courts.

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 Asia.

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 better.

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? 

Copyright 2007 by Ernest Partridge

Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .