Let Free Markets Guide Fire Protection Services

In the third and final part of our three-day series of point-counterpoint articles on the politics and policies of wildfire protection for the L.A. Times Web site, UC Berkely forestry specialist William Stewart and I tackled the issue of whether the government should restrict building in high-risk, fore-prone areas. Dr. Stewart claimed that building codes and zoning regulations help to reduce fire damage. I argued that free markets and private arrangements do a better job of assessing risk, determining and allocating costs, and helping people to decide where they want to live while leaving them free to choose the risk levels and lifestyles that are right for them. We both agreed that the subsidization of fire insurance in California has warped incentives and encouraged building in areas that would be considered too high-risk in a true free market.

See my commentary and Dr. Stewart’s response here.

See here to access the “Dust-Up” exchanges from all three days, including Wednesday’s columns about whether the state has enough resources to fight fires and whether the private sector should have a larger role in wildfire prevention and protection and Thursday’s discussion about what the government does right about preventing and fighting wildfires, and–mostly–what it does wrong.

Below is an excerpt of my column from today.

In your Thursday post, Bill, you voiced your approval of certain building codes passed recently, but I disagree that such government mandates are the way to go. While some building requirements may be advisable, people own their private property and should be free to determine how to build their homes (or which kind of home they want to buy) and what risks they are willing to take in this regard. Furthermore, when building specifications are subject to the political process, they become open to manipulation by lobbying and special interests that would benefit from the new regulations. What if the regulators do not adopt the proper standards? And who is to say what the right standards are? Specifications adopted for some homes and in some locations may not be appropriate for other homes in other locations. These decisions are all determined and tailored to meet specific needs in the free market by builders, insurers and home-buyers.

Zoning regulations should similarly be eliminated and avoided. Growth boundaries and other zoning laws that would prohibit people from living in certain high-risk or “protected” areas are often advocated by environmentalists and anti-growth activists who see people as a scourge of the environment rather than a part of it. Their true agenda is to inhibit development in order to concentrate populations in city centers. But in a free country, people should have the freedom to live where they choose — including less dense areas closer to nature — and not to be forced to live in high-density urban centers that might not suit their budgets or their preferred lifestyles.

Simply put, restrictive building codes and zoning laws violate property rights. Free markets and private arrangements do a better job of assessing risk, determining and allocating costs, satisfying consumers’ demands and preserving individual liberties than centralized land-use planning. The less property rights are eroded by various governmental edicts and mechanisms, the more free and prosperous we are as individuals and as a nation.

Finally, the private sector should also be instrumental in providing wildfire prevention and protection services. To this end, volunteer firefighters, who make up nearly three out of every four firefighters in the nation, and private firefighters can help to provide protection against wildfire damage. As Orange County Register senior editorial writer and columnist Steven Greenhut argued in an article about the 2003 California fires, “Far better if we had private land and private firefighters, with the costs of firefighting borne privately by those who choose to live in the canyons. But when we choose to live near lands controlled by the government, and the government does a bad job managing them, why are we supposed to feel guilty when our houses burn down?”