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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10.07.2010 / Jason said:

I’m all about it. i think this is an excellent idea. And then charge a huge fee to put out the fire if the person agrees to pay it. We either need to have no payment and we only pay to cover what they actually do, or we pay for some sort of insurance and if they have to help me then they will.

10.18.2010 / Brian said:

The fire department is a government function similar to police and the military, which should be paid for by taxation not by opt-in / opt-out. Fire is too dangerous to a society to allow it to go unchecked. We don’t think of fire as being dangerous in our modern times because our fire protection is so transparent, but in the 1900’s and back, fire was biggest threat to any metropolitan area.

Also, if you make people pay for fire protection or charge to put out fires, one way or another that’s going to encourage more fires to happen. Fire departments will stop doing fire awareness programs, fire code checks and other functions that limit fires, because they will want fires to happen since that’s how they get paid.

10.18.2010 / Aaron Hardy said:

Brian, I agree. I’m very much a proponent of having the option to let my own house burn down, but it does seem like fire is often a threat to neighboring property in which case it no longer remains an individual choice.

Thanks for stopping by and giving your input.

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