God Dammit People, Stop And Understand The Context
Now, many free-market supremacists in the conservative movement have argued that Mr. Cranick deserved to watch in tears as his house burned to the ground because he had not paid the measly $75 to the local Fire Department for service outside the city limits. But if the genuine issue were about making sure that adequate fees were rendered for services provided in the true spirit of the free market, there would have been at least two solutions to the problem: the South Fulton Fire Department could have accepted Mr. Cranick's fee at the time of the fire, or, barring that, the Fire Department could have put out the fire and then billed Mr. Cranick for the costs.
No and no. Accepting Mr. Cranick's $75 of the fire would have established a precedent that they must abide by at a later date; it would be unjust for them to accept Mr. Cranick's money and then subsequently refuse to extend the same offer to another homeowner. Such a predecent would inevitably result in some non-trivial portion of the fire department's customers paying the fee after the fact, effectively eliminating the risk-pooling aspect of requiring the fee from everyone up front. The original article to which Mr. Atkins links says the following in this regard:
Cranick's fellow residents in the rural stretches of Obion County had no fire protection until the county established the $75 fee in 1990. As Williamson explained: "The South Fulton fire department is being treated as though it has done something wrong, rather than having gone out of its way to make services available to people who did not have them before."
Mr. Atkin's insistence that Cranick be allowed to pay after the fact logically leads to the collapse of the South Fulton fire department. From a public policy perspective this is a worse outcome than allowing Mr. Cranick's house to burn down.
Nor could the fire department expect to be able to bill the Cranicks after the fact. As Orin Kerr points out:
Daniel Foster finds it objectionable that the Fire Department didn't agree to individually contract with the Cranicks to provide the service when Mrs. Cranick said over the phone that they would pay for the service "whatever the cost". But I don't know how the city is supposed to contract individually with the Cranicks while their house is burning down. 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? At whatever the city wants to charge? And what if the Cranicks don't have the money to pay the actual cost of the firefighters coming out and putting out the fire?
The Cranicks would have been contracting under duress on account of their house being on fire and such, so there is a good chance that such a contract would have been unenforceable.
The treatment that this episode has been getting from people like Mr. Atkins is either fundamentally ignorant or just one more example of reflexive libertarian-bashing. Here we have a rural area that, up until the introduction of a fee-supported fire department, had nothing at all. That might be a problem in-and-of-itself, but Mr. Atkins isn't criticizing the difficulty of sustaining a fire department. Rather he's specifically criticizing the behavior of the fire department in regards to Mr. Cranick's situation, behavior which, as demonstrated above, is consistent with the public policy objective of providing sustainable fire service to an underserved community.