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Putting Out a Firestorm of Myths

This recent column by Nicholas Kristof is a carnival of errors.  I address only one in the letter I wrote in response:

Supporting greater government control over health-care supply, Nicholas Kristof repeats the potted history of firefighting in the U.S., asserting that “Until the mid-19th century, firefighting was left mostly to a mishmash of volunteer crews and private fire insurance companies.  In New York City, according to accounts in The New York Times in the 1850s and 1860s, firefighting often descended into chaos, with drunkenness and looting” (“Health Care That Works,” September 4).

Research by Northwestern University’s Fred McChesney, among others, reveals this history to be bunk.  First, as McChesney points out, volunteer firefighters “still are the principal fire-fighting force in most smaller cities and towns.”  Second, government takeover of firefighting had little to do with public-spirited urges to improve fire-fighting – it’s unclear that volunteers performed poorly – and much to do with city bosses’ quest for control over patronage.  Here’s McChesney: “But with the rise of municipal machines after the Civil War, city politicians discovered in volunteer fire companies a ready source of patronage appointments who thereafter were reliable voters… volunteer companies were legislated out of existence in favor of public fire-fighting units.”

Donald J. Boudreaux

Soon after I sent this letter off, my colleague Tom Hazlett e-mailed to me the following note:

McChesney’s original article on this, which is one of my favorites, explains the very ‘chaos’ that the NYT reported at the time.  Interests keen to promote public monopolies rigged the rivalries so that the independent teams could only get paid by roughing up the opposition.  This strategically improved demand for a less contentious approach, and directly led to the establishment of a “public option,” increasing taxes and lowering quality of service.  Excellent analogy by Kristof!