Arnold Kling  

Fundamentalism

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David complained about an article in which the author blamed libertarians for the refusal of a fire department to put out a fire because the homeowner had not paid for fire protection. David's point is that it was a government fire department.

I think, though, that from a government fundamentalist point of view, this was a libertarian failure. I have not looked into the story, but as I understand it, the homeowner had the ability to opt out of fire protection. That should not be allowed, if you are a government fundamentalist.

A market fundamentalist is someone who thinks that markets never produce bad outcomes, unless government interferes in some way. (I am not a market fundamentalist, by that definition.) A government fundamentalist is someone who thinks that governments never produce bad outcomes, unless they lack resources or power. In the case of the fire, the government lacked sufficient power to force the homeowner to pay for fire protection.

In general, government fundamentalism is irrefutable. If public schools fail, the government fundamentalist says that it is because the schools lack resources. If financial regulation fails, the government fundamentalist says that is because the regulators lack power.

Be careful how you tangle with government fundamentalists. For example, what do you think will happen if the opponents of the health care mandate succeed in their Constitutional challenge? That is, suppose the Supreme Court rules that citizens cannot be forced to obtain a service from the private sector. The reaction of government fundamentalists could very well be, "You know, that's right. People should not be forced to obtain private health insurance. But universal government health insurance is clearly Constitutional. Look at Medicare. What the Supreme Court is telling us is that we need single-payer."

[update: read Tyler Cowen's take.]


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CATEGORIES: Political Economy



COMMENTS (7 to date)
RPLong writes:
A market fundamentalist is someone who thinks that markets never produce bad outcomes, unless government interferes in some way.

Is this fair? I thought market fundamentalists are people who believe that markets always provide more efficient outcomes than government interventions. This, too, is virtually irrefutable.

We don't need a Supreme Court decision to realize that government fundamentalists believe in a single-payer system and market fundamentalists believe in an unregulated private system. Even without such a court decision, government fundamentalists believe in a single-payer system (see the left-liberal backlash against ObamaCare) and market fundamentalists believe in an unregulated private system.

Such a Court decision would have no impact on the debate among fundamentalists. I submit that you're never more than 7 feet away from an ongoing Communism vs. Capitalism debate at any given moment. ;)

darjen writes:
I think, though, that from a government fundamentalist point of view, this was a libertarian failure.

They are clearly wrong. A government run single fire department where you can opt in is a far cry from a market based system with more than one provider.

Johnson85 writes:
I think, though, that from a government fundamentalist point of view, this was a libertarian failure. I have not looked into the story, but as I understand it, the homeowner had the ability to opt out of fire protection. That should not be allowed, if you are a government fundamentalist.

I don't think they're that coherent. Yes, one interpretation is "see what happens when you allow people to have freedom," but I don't think that writer got any further than the guy's house burned down, therefore, pay for service fire protection doesn't work. In reality, had it not been a government fire department, they would have been interested in what he would pay for them to put out the fire. I'm guessing a private provider, once they were there, would at worst, have put out the fire for the cost of their annual overhead divided by the average # of home fires they respond to in a year, plus a reasonable profit. They'd likely do it for a lot less, as even a $10k charge would cover their marginal costs (almost zero once they're next door) and would be significant enough to discourage free riding (unless it's covered by insurance).

fundamentalist writes:

I am a market fundamentalist!

Market fundamentalists believe a FREE market, not just any market, will produce a better society overall than one in which the state interferes with the free market. However, there is a caveat. Free markets require private property, and private property requires the rule of law, honest police and honest judges. In fact, free markets are nothing more than the instantiation of private property. The role of the state is to protect life, liberty and property. No free marketeer wants a society without the rule of law.

Troy Camplin writes:

The guy apparently tried to pay on the spot, and they wouldn't accept. Wouldn't happen with a private company.

I can think of no libertarian who would argue that there should be a government monopoly system you can opt out of, without a private company you can opt in to. How is it libertarian for the government to be the only provider of a service and let you opt out of it? That would be like arguing that if the government owned the only car company that could sell cars in the U.S. that it was still a libertarian system because one could, after all, opt out by simply not buying a car.

Matt C writes:

I watched some friends arguing about this on Facebook and you are 100% correct. Yes, it was a government fire department, but one corrupted by low tax and low regulation ideology. A proper government run fire department would have covered everyone in the jurisdiction without exception, because that is the very definition of a public service.

Gus writes:

But it wasn't in their jurisdiction. It's a city fire department, and the house was outside the city in the county. They could have opted in, but didn't.

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