Personal Responsibility Versus Nanny State: Tennessee fire sparks conservative ideological debate
October 5th, 2010
Just about anything can be fodder for an ideological dispute these days. Just consider news of the recent fire at Gene Cranick's home in Obion County, Tenn.
Here's the short version of what happened: In rural Obion County, homeowners must pay $75 annually for fire protection services from the nearby city of South Fulton. If they don't pay the fee and their home catches fire, tough luck -- even if firefighters are positioned just outside the home with hoses at the ready.
Gene Cranick found this out the hard way.
When Cranick's house caught fire last week, and he couldn't contain the blaze with garden hoses, he called 911. During the emergency call, he offered to pay all expenses related to the Fire Department's defense of his home, but the South Fulton firefighters refused to do anything.
They did, however, come out when Cranick's neighbor -- who'd already paid the fee -- called 911 because he worried that the fire might spread to his property. Once they arrived, members of the South Fulton department stood by and watched Cranick's home burn; they sprang into action only when the fire reached the neighbor's property.
"I hadn't paid my $75 and that's what they want, $75, and they don't care how much it burned down," Gene Cranick told WPSD, an NBC affiliate in Kentucky. "I thought they'd come out and put it out, even if you hadn't paid your $75, but I was wrong."
Watch a video report:
The incident has sparked a debate in many corners of the Web. Writers for the National Review, arguably the nation's most influential right-leaning voice, have seized on the episode to discuss the relative merits of compassionate conservatism versus a hard-line libertarianism. (See their arguments here, here, here, here and here.)
Daniel Foster, a self-described "conservative with fairly libertarian leanings" who writes for the magazine, took issue with the county's laissez-faire approach to firefighting, calling it "a kind of government for which I would not sign up."
"What moral theory allows these firefighters (admittedly acting under orders) to watch this house burn to the ground when 1) they have already responded to the scene; 2) they have the means to stop it ready at hand; 3) they have a reasonable expectation to be compensated for their trouble?" Foster wrote.
But Foster's colleague Kevin Williamson took the opposite view. Cranick's fellow residents in the rural stretches of Obion County had no fire protection until the county established the $75 fee in 1990. As Williamson explained: "The South Fulton fire department is being treated as though it has done something wrong, rather than having gone out of its way to make services available to people who did not have them before. The world is full of jerks, freeloaders, and ingrates — and the problems they create for themselves are their own. These free-riders have no more right to South Fulton's firefighting services than people in Muleshoe, Texas, have to those of NYPD detectives."
Liberals are pouncing on the Cranick fire as an illustration of what they take to be the callous indifference of a market regime that rewards privileged interests over the concerns of ordinary Americans.
"The case perfectly demonstrated conservative ideology, which is based around the idea of the on-your-own society and informs a policy agenda that primarily serves the well-off and privileged," Think Progress' Zaid Jilani wrote in a response to the National Review writers. "It has been 28 years since conservative historian Doug Wead first coined the term 'compassionate conservative.' It now appears that if any such philosophy ever existed, it has few adherents in the modern conservative movement."
(Photo via Getty)