POLICY: Socialized fire departments & trading up

Michael Millenson’s excellent and biting piece on the willingness of Orange Country Republicans to accept socialized fire departments has provoked great response. But of course this being America, even the concept of us “all being in this together” for a devastating disaster isn’t quite true.

Friday’s LA Times has an article about private home insurers running a “concierge-level” fire protection service for those in very expensive homes, and it appears that in some cases the intervention of the private firemen was the difference between saving a $3-5m home and it burning down like the one across the street.

There are obvious comparisons to the privatization of police forces—both the growth in special security companies and the over-staffing of police in tony towns compared to the under-staffing in poorer towns where there’s way more crime. And it does seem unfair that in the midst of the crisis some people got better treatment.

But I don’t think the private firemen completely defeat the concept of social insurance for health care. If you think about it, this is exactly what happens in the UK. Everyone pays into the pool according to their ability to do so. No one is sent a bill for fire protection or health care from the socialized provider, whatever their need. But in the UK and in many universal insurance companies countries, you can trade up to buy supplementary insurance that allows you to jump the queue in certain cases—a little like having the private fire guy come and spray extra retardant on your roof. But the main fire department will still be the ones coming to try to save your house when the fire actually gets into your backyard.

Of course the danger here is that everyone of any means gets the private fire insurance, and then decides that they don’t need to pay for the socialized fire department. Then, if you can’t afford private fire insurance, your house will be left to burn down—while what’s left of the underfunded socialized fire department does its best while overwhelmed by demands from the rest of the poor saps who couldn’t afford private coverage.

And that’s essentially what we have in health care now.

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