Privatized Hell Revisited

Ernest Partridge on the insanity of privatization mania.

Nov. 21, 2007 ( – Some principles and practices in our political order are settled, once and for all. They are 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.

Before fire-fighting became the business of local and state governments, fire-fighters were employed by insurance companies. Plaques placed on the front of homes and businesses identified the companies that underwrote the properties. 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.

Fires, as it happens, 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. (See my “Privatization and Public Goods”).

Two hundred and seventy-one years of uncontested validation of 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.

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