Saturday, August 01, 2009

Markets in Everything: Fire Fighters

They say that Cicero's Roman friend Crassus accumulated some of his legendary wealth through his management of a private fire department. Evidently if your house caught fire, he'd show up, but not necessarily to fight the fire: rather he would buy up the neighbor's houses (at attractive prices, one can infer)--and then put up the fire.

I'm surprised Tina Dupuy didn't think to mention Crassus in her jolly send-up of the concept of a free market in fire services. It's a good joke, but she better watch out or reality will bite her in the ankle. If no libertarian has thought of it yet, then some will now (though I admit tht a web search for "Cato Insitute" and"Fire Department" turns up mostly stuff about the New Haven Supreme Court case*). Short of that, there surely are private fire services, just as there are private security guards, and I wouldn't be at all surprised to find that there are cities which have already contracted out their fire-fighting services to a private operator ("Blackwater saves your baby!"). And the idea may not even be crazy: most of fire safety over the past 100 years or so has come at the initiative of private fire insurers; I wonder whether they shouldn't be in the business of the actual fire fightinng.

From another perspective--forgetting about big cities like Washington, my impression is that in many communities, the volunteer fire department is really not a lot more than a good ol' boys' social club. My college back in the Pleistocene prided itself on having no fraternities; but it had a fire department, and they had beer parties and dirty songs.
*Cato. Crassus. Is there a pattern here?

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