As ThinkProgress reported earlier this morning, South Fulton firefighters from Obion, Tennessee, last week stood by and watched as a family’s home burned down because their services were available by subscription only, and the family had not paid the $75 fee. As ThinkProgress noted, 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.
Now, leading conservative authors from modern conservatism’s bulkhead magazine, The National Review, have come out in defense of Obion County firefighters’ policy of servicing rural citizens by paid subscription only. The magazine’s commentary on the issue started with a blog post by Daniel Foster, one of the magazine’s staff writers. Writing on the National Review blog The Corner, Foster condemned the behavior of the county, saying that while he has “no problem with this kind of opt-in government in principle,” he sees no “moral theory” under which the firefighters would be justified in watching the house burn down:
I have no problem with this kind of opt-in government in principle — especially in rural areas where individual need for government services and available infrastructure vary so widely. But forget the politics: 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?
Yet, Foster’s fellow conservative writers found it hard to tolerate his view that families shouldn’t have to watch their homes burn down as firefighters stand there with their hoses. First, Kevin Williamson responded, comparing the family whose home was destroyed to “jerks, freeloaders, and ingrates”:
Dan, you are 100 percent wrong. […] And, for their trouble, 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.
Next came Jonah Goldberg, who said that while the story is “sad,” it will probably “save more houses over the long haul” because more people will pay for the subscription fire service:
Here’s the more important part of the story, letting the house burn — while, I admit sad — will probably save more houses over the long haul. I know that if I opted out of the program before, I would be more likely to opt-in now. No solace to the homeowner, but an important lesson for compassionate conservatives like our own Dan Foster (Zing!). As Edmund Burke said, example is the school of mankind and he will learn from no other.
Finally, John Derbyshire joined in. The writer said he was “entirely with the South Fulton fire department” and then launched into a complicated analogy explaining that the firefighters’ actions inject certainty into the surrounding society:
Dan, Kevin: I am entirely with the South Fulton fire department here. In the terms of Nico Colchester’s great 1996 essay, they are being crunchy rather than soggy:
Crunchy systems are those in which small changes have big effects leaving those affected by them in no doubt whether they are up or down, rich or broke, winning or losing, dead or alive. … Sogginess is comfortable uncertainty. … The richer a society becomes, the soggier its systems get. Light-switches no longer turn on or off: they dim.
One of the duties of conservatives in this soggy fallen world is to stand up for crunchiness. For the fire department to have extinguished the Cranicks’ fire would have been soggy, even aside from the considerable degree of sogginess it would have left on the property.
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.
P.D. writes, “What a disgrace! What if a person was in the house? A pet? This is utter insanity.”