There were no fire engines, horse-drawn or otherwise.  The citizens were the fire department.  Each house had its own firebuckets and in the event of a fire, everyone was meant to pitch in.  That meant taking your firebucket and joining the line of people from the water tank to the fire.

Does the story so far give you a warm, fuzzy feeling? Friendly folk working together, helping each other out and living by the Kantian categorical imperative.  Let me rain on your parade – I am an economist after all.  The private provision of public goods is subject to a free-rider problem: The costs of helping someone else outweigh the direct benefits to me so I don’t do it.  Everyone reasons the same way so we get the good old Prisoner’s Dilemma and a collectively worse equilibrium outcome.

People have to come up with some other mechanism to mitigate these incentives. In Concord, they chose a contractual solution.  Each fire-bucket had the owner’s name and address on it.  If any were missing from the fire, you could identify the free-rider and they were fined.

This is the story we got from the excellent tour guide at the Old Manse house in Concord.  Home to William Emerson, rented by Nathaniel Hawthorne and overlooking the North Bridge, the location of the first battle of the American Revolution.  (We were carefully told that earlier that same historic day in Lexington, although the Redcoats fired, the Minutemen did not fire back so that was not a real battle.)  The house has the old firebuckets hanging up by the staircase.

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