A Shrewdness of Apes

An Okie teacher banished to the Midwest. "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."-- William Butler Yeats

Friday, October 15, 2010

Of fires and fees and taxes

I have been following the evolving story of Gene Crannick, the rural Tennessee man who made the news when a nearby fire department watched while his trailer burned because he hadn't paid a $75 fee.

If you haven't been following this story, here's a pretty good summary of the debate, and you can find video of an interview with the homeowner on the web. Try this site from yahoo news for the summary.

Here's my take. First of all, this county's residents have chosen not to tax themselves to provide fire protection. We can see from this example how wonderful it is to live like our Founding Fathers did, as the Tea Partiers love to reminisce about. Two centuries ago, in the time of our Founding Fathers, there were no professional fire departments and it was not seen as the government's responsibility to provide fire protection (my alter ego, the History Geek, would like to remind you that the first US fire department was established in Philadelphia by Benjamin Franklin, but the first professional fire department was established in Cincinnati in 1853. At left, you can see an image from Franklin's attempt to encourage colonial unity and mutual aid in 1754). One could even argue that the Founding Fathers' vision of government did not include services like police protection, sanitation and sewage services, water purification, immunizations against smallpox and influenza, and a host of other things we moderns take for granted as being provided for us.

If your neighbor's house caught fire two centuries ago, hopefully you and your other neighbors would get together to try to put out the fire, although frankly that didn't work too well. That's why there are now professional fire departments. And it requires tax money to pay for them. Heck, it requires tax money to pay for volunteer fire departments, because there really is no such thing as a "bucket brigade" any more. Fighting fires requires expensive equipment and maintenance of that equipment. Once again, this must be paid for collectively by the community in the form of taxes.

Now, getting back to the situation at hand, Mr. Crannick claims to have "forgotten" to pay his fee that stands in lieu of a tax.

I wonder if the fact that this charge was called a "fee" rather than a tax makes any difference? It is called a "fee" because the town does not have jurisdiction to tax Mr. Crannick, and because payment is voluntary. That also means that they have no obligation to provide services to Mr. Crannick, as a non-fee-payer. Since 1990, the nearby town has offered to absorb the risk of fighting fires for those who lived in the county, IF they were willing to pay a fee. And this is an important distinction that needs to be made. The county residents chose not to tax themselves to provide fire protection, and it sounds like some of the residents expected to be able to mooch off those who did pay the tax in the event that tragedy struck.

Simply applying logical principles, and leaving morality out of the discussion for a moment, let us consider: seventy-five dollars obviously does not even begin to cover the cost of fighting a fire. Depending upon where Mr. Crannick lives, it may not even cover the cost of the fuel to get the fire truck to his house. So obviously, the only way that the fee is going to actually induce the neighboring town to offer fire protection for those outside its limits is if every person who wishes to have service will pay the fee even if that person doesn't happen to have a house on fire at the time. This is basically an insurance policy, if you will, and the way that works is that as many people as possible share the risk, and probably pay for something that hopefully they will never have to actually use. And by the way, in the interview I watched, Mr. Crannick admitted this was not the first time he or one of his family members had "forgotten" to pay this fee. The last time it happened, Mr. Crannick's family member HAD been allowed to pay the fee on the spot and the house fire was extinguished.

I have a feeling that Mr. Crannick didn't really "forget" after an experience like that. I have a feeling he felt that he could continue to ignore the real purpose of the fee and just pay on the spot if a member of his household caused another fire, which is exactly what indeed did happen. I guarantee that the residents of the town with the fire department pay far more annually than $75 for fire protection, and I would hope that he would recognize that. I wonder if he didn't deliberately choose not to pay the fee, thinking that he had gamed the system.

I fear that this situation may end up being more common, if certain anti-tax groups get their way. Eventually, if we lower taxes enough, services will have to be cut, and to restore them one will have to pay a fee, voluntarily. But is this a good thing? Not for "forgetful" people or for poor people or for even clumsy people who set their yards on fire when they don't have fire protection. You will have freedom, all right-- including the freedom to watch your house burn down in exchange for that freedom from taxation which the self-satisfied members of the Tea Party-- and perhaps Mr. Crannick himself-- so tragically misinterpret.

But seriously, in my vision of a just society, we live in communities, and we look out for each other. We support each other, in part by paying taxes to provide good things-- I would go so far as to call them necessary things. To be specific, I mean good things such as police and fire protection, sanitation, good roadways and good schools and safe water and a host of other beneficial things-- all paid for by taxes. In my perfect society, we balance individualistic concerns and self-interest (the part of us that says, "I don't want to pay taxes") with the benefit of being members of a civilized society (the part of us that says, "I want security and companionship and shared identity"). And my vision of this society goes back to, indeed, one of our Founding Fathers-- Governor John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay colony.

In 1630, John Winthrop wrote these words as he approached the new English settlements in America and pondered how the members of a successful settlement that claimed to be founded upon the laws of God should behave:

"....We must be knit together, in this work, as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace." Just a few lines later, Winthrop compared this new America to a "city on a hill" that would be an example for the world. This image is so famous and familiar that it has been quoted numerous times by presidents and statesmen, including that crusading icon of the anti-taxers, Ronald Reagan.

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall once famously stated, "The power to tax is the power to destroy." This is certainly so in some cases, like cigarette taxes and fuel taxes and "sin" taxes on alcohol. In the case of Mr. Crannick, however, the refusal or failure to pay a tax (alternative) led to destruction. If this is a vision of the future that sounds good to you, then by all means, support the vision of limited government that this story describes.

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At 10/16/10, 7:52 AM, Blogger deburkins said...

Fantastic post! So clearly to the point. Thanks for the Winthrop quote. How well he put the vision of "community!" Now, if only we could get Fox and MSNBC to shout about this at each other...

At 10/16/10, 1:54 PM, Blogger NYC Educator said...

I thought it was creepy and irresponsible that they didn't put out the fire until I read this. I had no idea they'd given him a pass once before. I know what would happen to me if I "forgot" to pay my insurance bill.

At 10/23/10, 3:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I heard this news item on NPR during my commute. I was aghast that the fire department would just sit there and let the house burn down, but protect the neighbor's house.

I think that if someone forgets to pay their annual fee, they should still get emergency coverage, because even if the fire doesn't spread to the neighbors, one could still argue that the charred property is a blight and thus lowers property values et cetera.

HOWEVER, if the fire department has to come and deal with your burning property, you should be required to pay the full cost of their visit! Given the mileage, materials, crew time and such, that will be quite the hefty bill.


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