Burning down the house

The move toward libertarianism is having extreme consequences, as one Tennessee homeowner discovered
Burning down the house
The emerging trend in the Tea Party era seems to be defending the seemingly indefensible; J. Scott Applewhite/AP

It was a situation that seemed unambiguously wrong at first glance: earlier this month, the fire department from South Fulton, Tenn., let a house burn to the ground because the owner hadn’t paid a $75 fee for fire service in rural areas. But according to many U.S. conservatives, the fire department did the right thing. “Letting the house burn,” wrote Jonah Goldberg, author of the bestselling Liberal Fascism, “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.”

There was more. On his radio show, Glenn Beck said that if the fire had been put out, owner Gene Cranick would have been an example of “sponging off your neighbour’s resources.” Bryan Fischer, writing for the Christian conservative group the American Family Association, said that “the fire department did the right and Christian thing”—“we cannot make foolish choices and then get angry at others who will not bail us out.” Fischer added that Christians who believe the house should have been saved have “fallen prey to a weakened, feminized version of Christianity.” It’s a trend in the Tea Party era: defending the seemingly indefensible.

Tea Party conservatives can even stand up for the mistreatment of puppies. In Missouri, there’s a proposed bill to outlaw “puppy mills,” where dogs are bred in bulk and often in inadequate living conditions. Conservative groups have opposed the bill as a plot to “raise the cost of breeding dogs,” recruiting one of the Tea Party’s founding fathers, Samuel “Joe the Plumber” Wurzelbacher, to the cause. And in the debate over whether the government should force Internet service providers not to restrict access, other Tea Party groups have come out against any official intervention; even if it means ISPs could slow down their own access to websites.

There’s even an entire city where people chose libertarianism over their own comfort: in Colorado Springs, residents voted down a tax increase for city services, which left buses and streetlights not running after dark. Yet according to the Wall Street Journal, many residents responded by doubling down on anti-government sentiment, and trying to get the private sector “to provide services the city can no longer afford.”

Not that conservatives are in favour of burning houses and extinguished street lights. But the U.S. right tends to see these heart-tugging stories as a form of emotional blackmail, a way to bully people into accepting more federal government control over their lives. So Joe the Plumber wrote on that the anti-puppy-mill legislation wasn’t really about puppy mills at all, but an attempt “to get rid of all dog breeding in Missouri.” Similarly, Tea Party spokesman Jamie Radtke told The Hill that Internet regulation was just a stalking horse for a larger “assault on individual liberties.”

That could be why the fire incident, far from discouraging free-market libertarians, has emboldened them to argue that still more libertarianism is necessary. Iain Murray of the Competitive Enterprise Institute wrote in the Washington Examiner that the disaster was proof that fire departments should be “employed by a private insurance company,” since no privatized department would let a home burn down. Perhaps encouraged by all the support, the same Tennessee county announced plans to expand the fee-for-fire-service program to other areas. It looks like conservatives will continue to stick to their principles even in these hard cases—because they believe that if they don’t, the government will take over everything.