The power of community and the trap of opt-out

In Colonial America, they had private fire departments. If you didn’t voluntarily pay your dues, the firemen wouldn’t put out a fire–they’d watch your house burn and make sure it didn’t spread to your neighbor’s house. [or this!]

While this is a vivid way to ensure that everyone pays their dues, it’s such an inefficient way to support the fire department that it was replaced with the smarter alternative: a smaller tax on everyone, automatically collected. Even if a few manage to avoid paying their share, the blanket protection, which also leads to fire inspectors and building codes, clearly makes the case for universal protection.

We don’t let citizens opt out of paying their taxes, because community works better when group consensus leads to group action. It’s more efficient to provide services this way, and far more important, it creates a culture of ‘us’, which changes behavior from selfish to generous.

There’s a balance, neither extreme works. It’s up to us to think hard about where the (unstable, hard to find) balance lies.