Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

Government-run insurance

Jerry Stratton, October 9, 2010

Recap: A homeowner in Tennessee lives in a county that does not have its own fire department. So, the nearby town of South Fulton offers what is basically fire insurance: pay $75 a year, and if your house catches fire they’ll come and try to put it out. The homeowner didn’t pay the fee; their house caught fire. The South Fulton fire department didn’t come to put it out; they did come when some neighboring land caught fire, and put that fire out; then, they watched the homeowner’s house burn.

First, firefighting is a dangerous business, and if the scheme is that you pay a special tax to have access to it, and you choose not to pay the tax, then you take your chances. If that was all clear to begin with, then that’s what government does, and the homeowner should have been aware of it.

Firefighting is a government service. There’s a strong argument that fire services are one of those rare needs that make it a good candidate for government service: a need that’s both very rare, and very necessary. But some people are complaining that this outcome is the result of some sort of libertarian thinking. Ignoring for the moment that libertarians do believe that some services are best provided by the government, if this had been a privately-run fire department, then (a) there would have been no expectation of service without paying, and (b) the privately-run fire department would have had per-incident service plans, because private businesses only make money by providing service.

The South Fulton fire department is part of the government of South Fulton. It doesn’t care about profit. It cares only about regulations, taxes, and fees. A private business would care about profit—and would, thus, have a system in place for charging on a per-incident basis.

This highlights the other side of government-mandated insurance schemes: refusing to allow people to pay at the point of sale. You don’t have health insurance? We will not accept your money to pay for your treatment. We don’t even know what it would cost. Imagine if car insurance worked this way: you don’t have car insurance for this incident? You can’t just pay to have your car fixed, what kind of message would that send to other free-riders?

That’s what’s frightening about government-provided firefighters refusing to put out a fire for a homeowner who chose not to buy fire insurance: it’s the same system we’ve got to look forward to when health care is handled by government exchanges.single-payer-mail You want to pay for some life-saving treatment that’s not on your insurance plan? Sorry, that’s not allowed. You rich people think you can buy anything. We’ll call this a teachable moment.1

Governments are not in the business of selling you things. They are not in the business of putting out fires or healing the sick. They are in the business of collecting taxes and fees2. An organization in the business of putting out fires or healing the sick will have a system in place for charging to put out fires or for health care. An organization in the business of collecting fees will act in a manner that increases the fees they collect. Which is what South Fulton did.

  1. And the right to pay as you go isn’t just about not buying insurance. Bureaucracies—especially bureaucracies that don’t care about making money—make mistakes. Suppose you really did pay your insurance, but your payment was lost in a bureaucratic snafu. The first time you find out about it? When your house is on fire, or when you need to have that severe throat inflammation checked out.

  2. And, as we’re seeing in California, they often blur the difference between taxes and fees when it’s in their interest to do so.

  1. <- Election 2010 California
  2. Media misogyny ->