20 July 2012

Privatize Firefighting

Alex Tabarrok, at Marginal Revolution, has a post about firefighters and their work.  In it, he notes that the number of career firefighters has doubled over the last 25 years while the number of fires has halved.  To put it another way, it’s highly probable that the market has reached its saturation point for firefighters.

Thus, now may also be a good time for privatizing firefighting since the risk of fires is declining while the cost of fighting them is increasing.  To put it another way, the need for firefighters (and presumably the direct demand) is declining while the practical cost is increasing.  We have an inefficient market since the government serves as the middle man, and payments are indirect and cannot be opted out of.  Thus, privatizing firefighting should help to significantly reduce costs without significantly reducing the amount of actual firefighting service provided.

To address the practical objections, I imagine that the most probable way of handling privatization would be to handle it through insurance companies.  For example, home insurers would likely make subscribing to a firefighting service a requirement for a policy.  Alternatively, home insurers might offer discounts to people who subscribe to a firefighting service because that indicates conscientiousness, which in turns indicates a lower risk of having the fire in the first place (for if one takes some pains to address fires, will he not also take others?).  Or insurers could sell subscriptions as a form of insurance (if your house starts to burn, you’ll be guaranteed that some company will come put out the fire).  This line of reasoning also extends to landlords as well.  Furthermore, the continued presence of volunteer firefighters suggests that even those who are too poor to subscribe to a firefighting can still be reasonably assured of help, much in the same way that poor people used to be assured of charity health care.

In any event, privatizing firefighting is very feasible.  Not only that, the risk and transitory pains are, at this point in time, likely the lowest they will ever be.  Maybe it’s time for a change.


  1. Like most of the services government provides, they have no formula for how much is enough. They always need more teachers, more police, more firefighters, more administrators with no calculations about work load.

  2. I'll be laughing my ass off when your uncovered neighbor's house is on fire and you have no choice but to watch as it slowly spreads to your own property. "Call us back when the fire reaches your property line," the fire department says.

    Really, this is a litmus test for finding out which libertarians come to their positions through rational reasoning and which come to them through blind ideology. You just failed the test.

  3. Anon,

    Of course if we flipped the test around and screened for social democrats, you pass. He gave a rather well reasoned argument for practical reduction of fire departments, though i would say completely privatizing it is a bit too far.

  4. I tend to agree with Ignemar. I think privatization is going a bit too far, especially since the insurance industry is every bit as corrupt as the government.
    It's actually a big messy can of worms; far too many full-time firefighter positions are "justified" because the unions and local governments invent unnecessary work for them - like requiring them to respond to non-emergency ambulance calls. Many small volunteer departments function very efficiently because they lack the tax revenues that can be abused.

  5. ^ I was also considering volunteerism, but the problem is, how many do we know in American who have enough sense of neighborliness to step forward and help his fellows? Perhaps a meditation for a future post.

    When citizens do try to band together for the sake of the commonweal minus the government's stinky hand, they get derided as whackos or vigilantes. Look at George Zimmerman.

  6. Let's suppose we privatize fire fighting. What about abandonments? Surely we shouldn't just let them burn to their hearts' content. So who's going to put fires out there? "Well," the libertarian says, "if there's truly NO-ONE claiming the property in question, the city itself will lump it into a general contract for firefighting for all the abandonments in the city..." I see, so the state is still in charge of fire fighting, and all we've accomplished is:

    1. added an unnecessary middleman (or multiple, if insurance is added into the equation)
    2. added a lot more paperwork. one more set of bills everyone has to pay!
    3. created financial incentives for increasing the risk of fire. so much for all those fire prevention awareness events put on by local FDepts!

    Way to break it, hero.

  7. Next you'll be saying that, in order to punish deadbeat homeowners who want to chance it and save money by not buying fire coverage, we need a national fire insurance mandate, with fees which John Roberts will be happy to call taxes.

    Congratulations, now we have Obamacare fire departments.

  8. "...they get derided as whackos or vigilantes..."

    Yes, because we've been taught not to trust non-government community level oversight. Also known as "neighborliness."

  9. I don't think that firefigthing should be privatized. Legit roles for gov't are protection of life, liberty, and property; anything outside that purview has to go, e.g. welfare, education, etc. However, fire fighting DOES satisfy the above litmus test in that life and property are both protected by the fire department. IOW, fire fighting is one of the few LEGITIMATE government functions, and should therefore be kept that way.

  10. There are a number of different approaches, eh? For example,local government could contract out the firefighting function to private companies. I believe some smaller suburbs and towns already do so with their paramedic service. In this arrangement, the firefighting service would still be mandatory, without choice to the property owner and paid for out of property taxes.

    On the other end of the spectrum, it could be made totally private and optional. While not private, we do have the optional part in some communities and yes, the house will burn down if you don't pay. As an example, see: http://rt.com/usa/news/home-pay-fire-bell-299/

    That might work in rural areas, but as someone else noted, wouldn't be as practical in densely populated areas where homes are packed on top of each other. One or two opt-out homeowners could take down the entire block.

    Whether good idea or bad, I seriously doubt it will come about because of the propaganda and unions. Only possibility is if a town goes broke and the citizens decide to contract for their own needs. And as with most any government run enterprise, the only answer over the years is "more money" because, yes, there is ALWAYS a way to make an existing firefighting service better. Government never says "no increase this year; we have enough".

    Since I don't see it changing, I haven't really looked into it much or given it much thought. Gut feel is that firefighting, at least in urban areas (like where I live) are best run by the government crooks.