Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

Firefighting and the Tragedy of the Commons

Posted 09 Oct 2010 / 0

A recent incident in Obion County, Tennessee has gotten national media attention from the likes of MSNBC, NPR, The Huffington Post, and The New York Times. A resident of this rural county called 911 when a fire broke out in his yard, but was told that he would not receive a response from the local firefighters because he had failed to pay a $75 fee  for fire services. Such fees may seem strange to urban and suburban residents (who are used to having fire services paid for by some form of local taxes) but in rural areas there are often too few residents to pay for local fire services, so nearby towns offer to cover surrounding rural properties using an “opt-in” fee. If you fail to pay the fee, you do not get fire service. To more dramatically underscore the conflict inherent in the situation, the firefighters actually did show up at the fire, watching as the house of the non-paying resident went up in flames while standing by to protect the house of a neighbor who had paid the fee.

Most of the response to this incident has been political, with left-wing pundits emphasizing the harsh cruelty of this seemingly-libertarian means of providing a community service and right-wing pundits pushing back by lauding the refusal to bail out a freeloader. Mirroring this political analysis has been a fair amount of morality-talk, with some people expressing the empathetic emotion that to refuse to help a neighbor is inhumane, and others angrily suggesting that this irresponsible family got what they deserved.

What struck me was how well this incident illuminates some of the fundamental issues that underlie how cooperation evolves. On the one hand you have a common good, firefighting, which is so much a part of our culture that we both lionize firefighters as heroes and expect without much thought that their services will be available. On the other hand we have a sympathetic freeloader, a family that refused to pay their share of a communal service but ended up paying a fearsome price while being punished for their “cheating behavior”. What should small municipalities do to pay for fire service? They lack the jurisdiction to enact a mandatory tax on outlying areas, but may feel some responsibility for protecting them. The “opt-in” fee structure seems like a reasonable means of solving this problem, asking everyone to pay a little so that all can enjoy the service of firefighting. But the fee system only works if everyone using the service pays the fee, and there needs to be some way of preventing cheating. After all, if I know that the firefighters will come even if I have not paid the fee, what is my incentive to pay? The only solution seems pretty clear, which is that those who do not pay the fee do not get the service. From an evolutionary perspective, this is the only stable configuration of policy (assuming you don’t want to come up with some other means of paying for firefighting services). But this policy has tragic consequences, and we do not seem to have much stomach for watching firefighters sit idly by while a home burns to the ground.

I cannot really take a stand on whether the firefighters were right in what they did, because I see the evolutionary dilemma they face clearly. What this incident underscores for me is the very real importance of formulating policy with acceptable consequences. You cannot have an opt-in policy for a communal good if you are not willing to withhold that good to those who fail to opt in. If withholding the good is unacceptable, you need to find a different way to pay for the good. We usually consider firefighting to be a local concern, and I can hear the howls of disagreement that would accompany the proposal to enact a national tax to pay for firefighting, but it was the local nature of this policy that got it into trouble. Local rural residents (a small group with potentially-overlapping interests) were unable or unwilling to provide their own fire services, so another small group (a local municipality) had offered to provide these services in exchange for cost-sharing. Maybe therein lies one of the problems: rather than a group negotiating cooperation with another group, we had a large group making individual covenants with single property-holders. But given the local conflict inherent in this situation, one does wonder whether a larger state- or national-scale firefighting policy would have the potential solve some of tragedy-of-the-commons tensions present at the local level.

Firefighting is not the only service that suffers from these kinds of conflicts. Within the community of outdoor adventurers there is an analogous question about who should pay for costly and dangerous services required to rescue those who get themselves into trouble while engaging in risky expeditions. This issue has only gotten more complicated as more inexperienced and questionably-autonomous wannabe adventurers head out into the wilderness with emergency GPS beacons. And rural areas factor into the question of “who should pay for shared services?” when it comes to transportation and mail delivery, as both are only viable in rural areas when their costs are aggregated with larger municipalities. Ironically, it is often rural residents who express the strongest libertarian politics, denying the importance of cooperation in providing the everyday services we enjoy.

Beyond the general policy failings it reveals, I have yet to see one of the chief ironies of this incident discussed: that in letting the fire burn when they could have easily put it out with resources on hand, the firefighters were punishing a freeloader but exacting a much greater cost to society. The family in question did have fire insurance, which means that all of the people who pay for fire insurance will face slightly higher premiums in the future because they will share the cost of reimbursing this family for their lost home. This kind of cost-sharing through insurance — even when administered by a for-profit corporation — is a form of cooperation, and all policy holders end up sharing the cost of every fire. One could argue that this was unnecessary: that for a very small cost the firefighters could have saved the society at large (or at least the insurance holders) a much greater cost. But this is not how the situation actually exists, because the interests of the firefighters and insurance holders are not integrated. Interestingly, the homeowner could have integrated his interests into both cooperative pools: the group of people contributing to support firefighting services and the group of people contributing to underwrite insurance service. But the interests of the firefighters and the insurance holders are not integrated, and this means that there is no incentive for either to provide help to the other (although gee, it would be smart for the fire insurance company to require that their policy-holders pay into the firefighting services!). Humans are dramatically cooperative, but I maintain that a large number of our conflicts stem not from friction between individuals but from poorly-integrated cooperative groups who end up with conflicting interests.

I think that it is fair to describe what the firefighters chose to do as a form of punishment: refusing to provide aid as retribution for failing to contribute to the common good. Was this costly punishment? As I have suggested above, most of the cost associated with this refusal was borne by the homeowner and the people with whom his fire insurance is bundled. Seemingly the fire department has paid no cost. But if reputation matters, the firefighters have paid a rather steep cost, as the publicity about this case has portrayed them as rather heartless and illogically inflexible (apparently one of the family members involved also tried to enact a form of punishment, as he attacked the fire chief and was summarily arrested).

One of the things that really frustrates me about a story like this is the lack of clear thinking on the part of everyday people about the situation. By-and-large we hear an emotional reaction that it is morally wrong to stand by and let a house burn to the ground over a paltry $75. But this reaction is completely inadequate: if we simply allow emergencies to drive our policy but fail to actually figure out how to fund emergency services, pretty soon the quality and quantity of these services is going to severely decline. Perhaps the homeowners were at fault for not paying their fire-subscription fee, but at the same time their house should not have allowed to burn to the ground. This statement is contradictory. Welcome to the world of multilevel selection! Until the public gains the ability to step back and more fully understand the nature of cooperative dilemmas (starting with the tragedy of the commons), we will continue to have policies that create conflicts of this sort.

Cooperation, Cultural Evolution, Ethics, Evolutionary Psychology, Film, Television, & Video, MSCI-463, The Evolution of Cooperation, Multilevel Selection, Public Policy, Punishment, Radio & Podcasts, Web

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