when the status quo frustrates.

The Balance

Normally, when I hear the phrase “moderate” I start to seize up. It is an unfortunate fact of life that sometimes perfectly good, innocent words get destroyed when politics come into play, and “moderate” has joined the list with “liberty” and “freedom” of words that make me instantly suspicious of you. “Moderate” in modern American politics, seems to always mean “Republican light”.

But, generally, the position in between two extremes is the right one. Not necessarily between “right” and “left” but between different poles such as authoritarianism versus libertarianism, the community versus the individual freedom. Yet, I have a hard time articulating where that balance should lie, and what exactly should be the guiding principle behind it.

A few weeks ago, a family in Tennessee had their house burn down. Because they had not paid their subscription fee to the local city, and because their county had voted down a small increase in property taxes to support a fire department, the South Fulton firefighters did not put out the blaze, and only responded when the neighbor’s house started on fire. My libertarian friends see this story as personally tragic, but ultimately his own fault. My liberal friends see it, alternately, as tragic but what happens when you choose not to pay taxes, and/or a tragedy that shouldn’t have happened either because the firefighters should have put out the fire and quibbled over the price later, or because they see it as morally wrong to even have services like a fire department up for a vote.

I, surprising no one, fall into the “this should not have been allowed to happen” camp, though, less for bleeding-heart reasons that one might guess. I do feel for the family, particularly because they lost their pets, and had it been my decision I probably would have told them to go put out the fire and quibbled over the price later. But this gentleman was 3-times an idiot. He was burning garbage instead of paying to take it to the dump, he left it unmonitored, his house had already been set on fire once before when he hadn’t paid his subscription fee and yet he still didn’t pay his subscription fee. It does make it difficult to feel sympathetic to his plight when he did act irresponsibly, and it takes money to run a fire department. Yet, here is where the “it shouldn’t have been allowed to happen” comes into play- his house on fire did not effect just him. His neighbor’s house started on fire, and there could have been explosives in his house that could have started an even larger fire. I am concerned about this county not having fire services for more than the individual homeowners- allowing it to be an opt-in, opt-out service means that even if you opt-in you are placed at a higher risk. We don’t get to be individuals in a lot of cases- what we do effects our neighbors and not just ourselves. If you have garbage moldering in your backyard you are attracting rodents and bugs through mine. Your poor school system means that I have to try and have a democracy with people who can’t name the three branches of the government, much less understand their responsibilities as an electorate. You driving on the road with a cell phone puts me at greater risk of getting into a car accident (opposing cell phone laws is cause de jour among my libertarian friends*). We don’t have the option of living as an island, and what’s more, trying to live as if we did is a recipe for a Hobbesian existence.

This would seem that I fall into more to the “authoritarian” side of things, but I can also recognize when the government plays too much interest in our lives. I wouldn’t want the government dictating what colors my houses had to be, even if it did reduce my neighbor’s property values. I wouldn’t want the government to dictate what political philosophies I subscribed to, even if it means I have to put up with tea-baggers. I, for the life of me, cannot figure out what their interest would be with what I do with my genitals, but I know that the government has no right or need to investigate in my (consensual) sex life. To something a little more controversial in liberal/feminist circles, I do not support burqua bans, even though I do believe that a burqua is dehumanizing, because it is matter of free speech.

So what’s the line? I was discussing with one of my moderately conservative friends and he pointed out that mandating fire service is a slippery slope to fascism. I countered that not having fire services was a slippery slope to not having a social contract. Generally, when we (and by we, I mean the American public or possibly two people) have a controversy, it is two competing rights going against each other that we have to balance out, generally going back to the community versus the individual.** I would say that the line would be something along the line of “If your action has a clear relationship between my well-being, then I get a say in it”, but that doesn’t seem like it would get any disagreements settled, both as a definitional issue and in cases where there are competing, compelling interests (divorce law, family law, et cetera).

So I offer this up to the internet populace: what is your guiding political philosophy, or ultimate value, the rules the balancing act? What do we tolerate versus what do we require? How much do we allow others to be idiots without being told what to do by other idiots?

* A case I don’t understand in the freaking least. It’s like opposing seat belt laws (which they also do). Though, I am receptive to the idea that the laws are ineffective or counter-effective in reducing traffic fatalities because of cell phone use. In that case, they should be repealed.
**Let’s ignore blatantly stupid debates like whether or not the earth is 6000 years old. That’s a disagreement between “reality” and “the right to believe false things”.

5 Responses to “The Balance”

  1. Thene says:

    The same arguments in favour of having a universal fire service apply to having universal healthcare. Just saying.

    I think the equating of social and economic ‘freedom’ may be a false one; take the neighbour in this story, for example. He’d exercised his economic freedom to pay to opt in to the fire service, but has undoubtedly lost money and possessions due to his neighbour not doing the same. How does that amount to having economic freedom? More like the opposite – you pay your dues and still get shafted because of the freedom-that-isn’t.

    (Note that the lack of a compulsory trash service, and someone taking advantage of his ‘freedom’ to not pay for something that he needed – that everyone needs – is where this story begins. I guess this guy was functionally a libertarian until his house caught fire? I’m used to trash being bundled with local taxation to ensure everyone has provision; it being non-compulsory isn’t freedom from needing to pay someone to deal with your refuse; it’s just absurd.)

    So while I’m more permissive than most libs on social issues – I don’t oppose hunting, gun ownership, burquas, or animal testing – it seems like most ‘economic’ freedoms aren’t worth bothering with. I’m currently contemplating the expense of changing my five-yearly contraception early next year; having to pay more than I can afford out of pocket to not make babies that (on our wages) would force the US government to pay me thousands of $s of EIC each year, what kind of freedom is that?

  2. Antigone says:


    I support universal healthcare. Quickly and without reservation. I just hate/d the Obamacare “Health INSURANCE reform”.

  3. KMTBERRY says:

    The line seems to me to be somewhere in the vicinity of, people should not be allowed to “cheap out” on opting INTO services that anyone in their right mind KNOWS we all need, like fire and police protection, and (in my opinion) healthcare and disaster protection/insurance.

    It occurs to me that a lot of these “taxes are bad” scenarios that result in the breakdown of the social contract, wouldn’t be happening if WAGES HADN’T BEEN STAGNANT FOR THE LAST THIRTY YEARS.

  4. Dr. Psycho says:

    The way to explain cell phone laws to libertarians is to say, “If the road were privately owned, it would be entirely within the owners’ rights to require that drivers not talk on phones, not be drunk, wear seat belts, &c. the fact that the county owns the road company around here doesn’t change that, any more than there is a moral case for refusing to pay the gas bill in a town where that company is city-owned.”

  5. DPirate says:

    By the logic of the OP, the county should have bulldozed the guy’s house after the first time he set it on fire, and by standing around in case it spread, they did all of his neighbors a favor in letting it burn down. He was, apparently, a danger to everyone around.

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