People often say that the Republican Party has become much more conservative than it used to be. But they don’t talk much about how conservatism itself has become more… hmm, how to put this politely — let’s say, detached from traditional American beliefs and standards of behavior.
We’re not talking about their claim to want to shrink government. That is very mainstream, and popular with voters (though once in office, conservatives usually don’t do much actual government-shrinking).
No, we’re talking about their new tendency to promote ideas from the furthest fringes of their movement — ideas that, were they proposed by a guest at your dinner table, might cause you to doubt his sanity, or perhaps ask him to leave your home.
Take, for example, their recent defense of a fire company that refused to save a man’s burning house because he had not paid the firefighters a fee.
The city of South Fulton, Tennessee offers residents of nearby areas the protection of its fire department for $75 a year. (Obion County has jurisdiction in those areas, but does not provide fire services.) One Gene Cranick is not so good about paying the fee. A few years ago he had a fire which required the South Fulton FD’s attention. At that time he was in arrears, but was allowed to pay the $75 retroactively and, presumably, told to not to let it happen again.
Last week Cranick’s house caught fire again. And again Cranick had not paid the fee. This time, though, the fire department would not help him. When the blaze spread to the house next to Cranick’s, the firefighters came to put that one out — but refused to minister to Cranick’s burning home, despite his begging and pleading and offers to pay anything they asked.
And they stood watching as Cranick’s house burned to the ground.
Now, maybe it’s just the liberal fascist in us, but the idea that a bunch of firemen would just stand there and watch someone’s house burn down seems — well, crazy. It’s like something you’d expect to see in the nightmarish Pottersville of It’s a Wonderful Life — a vision of what monsters people turn into when money is all they value.
You may be relieved to hear that other firefighters who were asked about the case felt similarly. (“If somebody needs help, we help and worry about everything else later,” said big-government advocate Steve Wheeler of the Vonore, Tennessee Fire Department.)
But it was hard to find a rightblogger who felt that way. They thought it was great that the firemen let the house burn down — a triumph of the free market, a victory for personal responsibility, and just desserts for free-loaders who thought they were entitled to help just because they were on fire.
This pro-burning POV is one of the ways in which conservatism has been invigorated by its renewed association with libertarianism. These creeds had come together before, as when Ronald Reagan appealed to both parties by transferring money and power from the federal government (how libertarian!) to his donors and pals (how conservative!).
This union suffered during the reign of spendthrift Jesus freak George W. Bush, but has been revived of late by the Tea Party movement, which both conservatives and libertarians portray as a small-government thing (though the poor saps who actually wear the tricorners and hoist the OBAMA=HITLER signs prefer their government quite a bit bigger when it comes to, say, abortion).
Big-time conservatives like Glenn Beck got on the right side of the issue (“if you don’t pay the 75 dollars then that hurts the fire department”). But rightbloggers got there first.
Say Uncle took a class warfare angle: “It’s often shocking to my more urban friends who live in larger cities,” he wrote, “that we crackers have to actually pay for fire protection and emergency services.” You, Mr. Urban Sophisticate, may think your taxes “actually pay” for fire services, but real Americans like Say Uncle know better; taxes only enslave white people!
As he whittled by the stove, Say Uncle reminisced fondly about other non-payers in God’s Country who did have their fires attended to, but afterwards received “a bill in the mail that I am told is tens of thousands of dollars.” That the SFFD failed to take advantage of this money-making opportunity — “I mean, that’s a guaranteed customer right there” — was the only thing about the case that bothered Say Uncle. “But,” he added, “being government employees, I guess that’s not something that occurs to the City of Fulton Fire Department.” And that’s what’s wrong with the Danged South Fulton Big Gummint — not a sociopathic disregard for the welfare of others (this Say Uncle endorses, and perhaps possesses), but poor business sense.
More lawyerly was Orin Kerr at The Volokh Conspiracy. “It doesn’t make much sense to decline to pay for a service and then be upset when it isn’t provided to you,” he said, blinking in Aspergerian incomprehension at the fuss over the fortunes of a couple of parasites.
Neither did Kerr understand why anyone expected the fire department to respond to the Cranicks’ begging and pleading for water. “Is the city supposed to treat Mrs. Cranick’s statement that she would be willing to pay as the acceptance of a contract, at whatever the cost ends up being?” he asked. Clearly her pleas for help, however tear-stained, were all a ruse; she’d be crying poor the second the exorbitant bill arrived. Orin Kerr sees through these statist shenanigans!
“And,” Kerr added, “what if the Cranicks don’t have the money to pay the actual cost of the firefighters coming out and putting out the fire?” Presumably the Cranicks could then go to one of those new “debtors’ prisons” that are coming back into fashion; so far such incarcerations are only for people who can’t pay their legal fees, but surely if the Cranicks got an exorbitant post-facto bill, they’d wind up having that problem as well. The prospect should warm Kerr’s heart, if he has one.
Tom Maguire showed some small sympathy for the Cranicks before noticing that “libs are exultant” about how bad the story made free-market conservatives look. This could not stand. So Maguire began to view the Cranicks’ tragedy through fresh, exultant-lib-hating eyes as “a tough love lesson for the many other rural residents who did (or did not) pay the $75.”
Also enraging to Maguire: That famous lib Paul Krugman would compare the burning to “denying someone essential medical care because he doesn’t have insurance.” “‘Essential’ medical care?” asked Maguire. “No one died, or was even hurt. There was property damage.” (That’s something else libs do that red-blooded conservatives don’t get: Analogies!)
Besides, added Maguire, Krugman is just “some guy from Princeton” who presumes to tell “the people of Obion how to organize their town and county governments,” and like all fancy college men, Krugman lives in a world where “goodies fall out of the sky paid for by Someone Else. But a lot of people think there ought to be a link between decisions and consequences, and that it is not the role of government to break that link except in extreme circumstances.” Didn’t the Cranicks have a fire three years earlier? Two strikes, they’re out: No firehose-water goodies falling out of the sky for them!
Some rightbloggers seemed at least to sense that other people, if not themselves, might find their sangfroid repulsive, and tried to offload the problem. E.D. Kain at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen used what became a popular gambit, insisting that exultant libs couldn’t use this as a case of “libertarian policies gone bad” because the SFFD is a government agency — never mind that it was a government agency operating on libertarian principles.
Things would have been great, Kain suggests, if the government were kept out of the fire protection business altogether, and all such services went only to those who could pay the appropriate user fees. In fact, Kain’s colleague Mark Thompson said, unfortunate events like the Cranicks’ “would be extremely rare even in a world where all fire services were fee-based for the simple reason that no lender would ever provide a loan without a guarantee, funded by an escrow account, that the homeowner would pay for fire coverage, and no homeowners’ insurer would sign off on a policy without fire service unless it required the homeowner to pay a hugely inflated premium whose inflation would be in excess of the fire service fee.”
So there’s your solution — instead of an onerous government burden in the form of a (shudder) tax, we’d have an onerous insurance burden in the form of mandatory payments. Which is automatically better because the money would go to big insurance companies instead of the government, which might use it to pay for useless crap like roads and soup kitchens. (Plus this arrangement would make homeowning more difficult. Fewer houses means fewer fires. Everybody wins!)
You might wonder: What of the believing Christians who constitute a large part of the conservative coalition? Surely followers of the Prince of Peace would counsel conservatives to do unto the least of His brothers what they would have done unto Him?
If you wonder thus, you obvious haven’t been talking to proper, rightwing Christians. Bryan Fischer, blogging for Donald Wildmon’s American Family Foundation (we’re not talking about Christwire here, but one of the major Christian-fundamentalist groups), said that “the fire department did the right and Christian thing” because “we cannot make foolish choices and then get angry at others who will not bail us out when we get ourselves in a jam through our own folly.” As Jesus told the woman taken in adultery, you’re on your own, whore! (In his follow-up, Fischer explained to believers that any controversy over his remarks was meant to confuse Christians and was the work of Satan — or, as Fischer likes to call him, “the left.”)
Some rightbloggers wrestled with the issue before coming down on the appropriately inhuman side. A particularly sad case was that of National Review‘s Daniel Foster, who originally reacted to the news as a human being might — “I’m a conservative with fairly libertarian leanings, but this is a kind of government for which I would not sign up” — before being corrected by his colleagues.
“The world is full of jerks, freeloaders, and ingrates,” said Kevin D. Williamson, referring to the Cranicks, “and the problems they create for themselves are their own,” before resuming his stimming and math puzzles. Jonah Goldberg made what he seemed to imagine were jokes about the destruction of the Cranicks’ house — “You can pay 75 bucks upfront or, if you wait until your house is on fire, it will cost you, I dunno, $10,000? Lots of things work like this… No solace to the homeowner, but an important lesson for compassionate conservatives like our own Dan Foster (Zing!).” (Bolding and italics, embarrassingly, in the original.) “I am entirely with the South Fulton fire department here,” announced John Derbyshire, with the same directness with which he once defended the guards at Abu Ghraib.
Etc. Perhaps not wanting a taste of what NatRev writer Jim Manzi got when he expressed an unorthodox opinion, Foster retreated, turning his wrath instead on — readers, can you guess? If you said Paul Krugman, you win! Foster also rather pathetically tried to excuse his earlier, double-plus-ungood outrage at the firefighters’ refusal to save the Cranicks’ home: “My moral argument hinged on a reasonable expectation that the free-riding homeowner would (or would be compelled to) reimburse the fire department for its costs after the fact.” See? It wasn’t like he was in favor of letting the guy get away with something! Now ask him if he’s in favor of cutting food stamps — we think you’ll like his answer!
As you might expect, at libertarian Galt’s-Gulch Reason Nick Gillespie also attacked Krugman, and was inspired by his crack about essential medical care to this reverie:
“Which begs the question who does pay in the hypothetical medical care situation above. If the patient doesn’t have insurance and can’t pay, his costs are spread to other (paying) patients, or to charities or to taxpayers eventually. Is any of that just? Moral? If it’s charity paying, certainly so. If it’s other folks, there’s a lot more to debate.
If your reaction to the plight of the seriously-ill-and-uninsured is not “whatever” bracketed by oceans of dorm-room bullshit, congratulations, you are out of sync with the new libertarian-conservatism. Which is to say, whatever ideology you favor, you seem to have at least some idea that the suffering of human beings is more important than utopian fantasies of a great big country with a teeny-tiny government.
You probably didn’t go for Rand Paul’s original-recipe denunciation of the Civil Rights Act, either, nor the many fanciful rightblogger campaigns against things they imagine are unAmerican (e.g. the World Cup soccer matches, Captain America, Theodore Roosevelt, etc), nor any of the other crackpot crusades the New New Right have come up with. But that’s okay — they don’t need you to endorse all their crackpot ideas. They only want you to vote for their candidates because you’re angry that Obama caused the financial meltdown of 2008. Then the rest of their program will take care of itself.
(You know what’s really funny? Back in May, when the Cranicks’ and the South Fulton Fire Department’s home state of Tennessee was hit by floods, these same people were incensed that Obama didn’t pour more federal aid into fixing it.)
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 11, 2010