Saturday, July 14, 2007

Why Not Privatize the Police and Firefighters?

It is the year 70 BCE. You have worked your entire life as a hotelier with a small establishment near the Circus Maximus, offering room and board to those who come from far and wide to see the chariot races. It's not a great living, but it keeps you in bread and circuses without the need for government handouts. One night, to your horror, a fire breaks out in your hotel--who started it or how you don't know, but that doesn't matter now: you do your best to extinguish the blaze with pails of water and dirt. Unfortunately, the blaze is too much: your feeble efforts are in vain.

Suddenly, out of nowhere comes your salvation: the Fire Brigade arrives. Except that this is no ordinary fire brigade financed by the Senate and People of Rome--for no such entity exists. The very concept is a novel one to you and your fellow citizens. No, this particular Fire Brigade is run by one Marcus Licinius Crassus, one of Rome's richest and most powerful men and eventual member of the Triumvirate with Julius Caesar and Pompey. Crassus' firefighters are his personal slaves; they're not only the best at what they do--they're the only ones who do it.

Crassus steps down from his chariot, looking his usual glorious self, and asks you if you wouldn't mind filling out a bit of papyrus-work while his men prepare to fight the fire. No problem, you say--except that then you see the terms: "I hereby sell my hotel to Marcus Licinius Crassus for 5,000 sesterces (less than 1/5th its market value)." At first you scoff--"these terms are outrageous!" you say. "It's extortion!" Crassus sighs and says, "ok, have it your way" and calls his slaves off to go back home. Suddenly turning back as yet another room bursts into flames, your spirit breaks--and you call for Crassus to return with his men. And in one fateful moment, you sign away your life's work to a man with no scruples.

This is not legend: the history is all there in Plutarch's Lives and elsewhere in the record of Roman historians. This scene played itself out time and time again in the waning years of the Roman Republic, as Crassus made of himself Rome's principal landlord through the use of this private fire department. It is even alleged that Crassus also had his own arson brigade, which he utilized judiciously when nature itself was too slow in starting the desired conflagrations.

It is a scene that played on a continuing feedback loop in my mind as I watched Michael Moore's brilliant film Sicko the other night. Throughout the film, the barbaric extortion practiced by the United States healthcare system on those in desperate straits seemed as foreign and as repulsive to the citizens of Canada, France and Great Britain as Crassus' "fire brigade" seems to us. Why, they feel, must one hand over one's life savings for a service that is properly in the public domain? Why should one be forced to pay when one is least able or prepared to do so? If we have public police and firefighters, why not a public healthcare system?

I am not the first to raise this point, of course. Moore himself raises it in the context of the boogeyman that is "socialized medicine": in the film, he points out that we already have a number of "socialized" services, ranging from the police to the firefighters to the armed forces to the post office. The poignancy of this issue as it relates to the military is even the subject of a panel for YearlyKos '07. And certainly, the applicability of the model of such needed social services to the common good that is public health has been stressed by many a Democratic politician.

It is too easy, however, for conservatives to dismiss such a comparison. They point out, in proper conservative fashion, that police and fire have always been taxpayer-funded services in America, and medicine always private. They say that, unlike police or fire, healthcare is a purchaseable commodity--and as such, best handled with the famed efficiency of the "free market." They claim especially that the costs of making public such a system would be significantly greater to the average citizen than those of keeping the system private. Of course, these latter two claims are utterly spurious: the "free market" in healthcare is anything but free, while guaranteed health coverage costs less in the long run. Nevertheless, conservatives are able to kick just enough sand in the face of the public and muddy the waters just enough with these and other arguments to keep Americans in the Crassus-era of extortionary health coverage. The fact that conservatives are always on the wrong side of history--they're still calling the New Deal Unamerican to this day--troubles them not a whit: back in Ancient Rome, they'd be defending Crassus' fire department if there was money in it for them.

There is a clever reverse argument, however, that can be extremely effective and is grossly underused by proponents of guaranteed health coverage: If the free market is so effective and cost-efficient in providing critical social services, why not privatize the police force and the fire department?

This line of argument is particularly effective because it forces conservatives to explain when and why privatization is a bad thing, rather than arguing the drawbacks of making such systems public. I have used this argument many times against conservatives, and the results have never failed to be absolutely devastating. Responses to this argument tend to run along the following five lines:

1) "Because it's always been that way!" This is not a terribly clever argument, of course, nor would any major political figure use it. Nevertheless, Crassus' fire brigade is an effective couter-attack.

2) "Because health care is so much more expensive than police and fire departments!" Also a not-too-intelligent argument, the easy counter is that public healthcare saves more long run, just as public police and fire departments do.

3) "Because doctors don't make enough money under public healthcare!" This argument is simply a bold-faced lie. What actually happens is that disparities between the incomes of various types of doctors decrease--those earning the most do end up earning less.

4) "Because I don't want to pay more taxes!" To which one simply asks if they would be willing to accept a tax cut that got rid of the fire department. If no, why not? Rinse and repeat...

5) "Because I want to be able to choose private insurance!" Of course, this choice is never removed from them under a guaranteed system, just as one can always supplement the police with a private security force.


The truth of the matter, of course, is that none of the above arguments are the real reason a conservative doesn't support the privatization of the police or firefighters. The real reason is that if such large systems so essential to the public good were privatized, the private companies would find that it was only worth their while to secure the lives and property of the very rich--or to extort everyone else. Just as the salaries of private contractors in Iraq dwarf those of publicly funded soldiers at great cost to the American Public, the only people who benefit from such privatization are the privateers themselves and those bought off by them. In other words, in the absence of a State Fire Department, the only private fire departments tend to act like Crassus' noble enterprise.

Every American understands this principle on a fundamental level, whether they can articulate it or not--but rarely are Americans allowed to tap into this commonsense understanding when it comes to healthcare.

In my experience, the best way to get even conservative Americans to understand the necessity of a public healthcare system is to make them confront their own distaste for a private fire and police system--and to force them to attempt to articulate their reasons for that distaste. It's a simple process from there to applying the same reasoning to public health.

Because in the end, only the most hardened sociopath can defend the Crassus way of running a healthcare system.

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Blogger D.K. said...

You are sorely mistaken if you think conservatives, particularly libertarian conservatives, would not rather privatize the police and fire department. You haven't been doing your research.

Privatized police and fire departments are exactly what most conservatives, particularly hard-core conservatives, libertarians, etc, would prefer. Even more than privatization, these people would prefer volunteerism and in the case of the fire department, they hold a very solid case:

Do we not have volunteer fire deparments right now? Are they not effective? Why can't they all be volunteer? In some places, the entire fire department IS all volunteer. I haven't met anyone yet who can argue against this fact, mostly because it is fact.

Police departments, on the other hand, are more apt to go along the lines of privatization. With people like bounty hunters, private eyes, body-guards, and organizations like Black Water, privitization of police forces is a real possibility.

Even volunteerism is a gradually increasing possibility with groups such as neighborhood watches and Guardian Angles, doing what police fail to do.

Try talking to more conservatives out there and you will see that they hold very different views than what you have mentioned here, and they have far better arguements to back those views up than what you have suggested as well, particularly in the case of fire departments.

8:42 AM  
Blogger Tom Tele said...

So if DK is right and thoughtful libertarians support privatized poise and fire dept why do we not hear calls for the abolition of government? Really, if government is always bad and people should run their own lives, what legitimate purpose does a government serve? We could go to a feudal system. Corporations would not longer have the public to bail them out. If a corporation wanted fire protection for its employees, it could finance it. Right now they get off to easy. With no government we could return to a state of nature, red in tooth and claw. What is not to like?

9:14 AM  

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