Who Gets to Make the Rules?

Eugenics, Prohibition, Soviet Man, the Spanish Inquisition … the stoic philosopher Seneca once stated, “There will come a time when our descendants will be amazed that we did not know things that are so plain to them ….” When we look back at things like eugenics, Prohibition, religious intolerance, and socialism and its sister communism, we are amazed that anyone could believe they were just or good things to support. Tragically, they were tyrannically imposed on people by the distant force of government elites.

The interesting thing about elites is their assured sense of superiority—academics, politicians, rich people, powerful people, “educated” people who think it is okay to force or attempt to force their will by behavioral controls, rules, laws, regulations, and nudges on those who they deem inferior, uneducated, or deficient. We heard it recently from Bill Clinton, who stated, “I think the norms have really changed in terms of what you can do to somebody against their will, how much you can crowd their space, make them miserable at work.” It was this attitude that generated the Revolt in 1215, producing the Magna Carta, the American Revolution, and the Indian Rebellion of 1857. But some folks, to quote John Kennedy, “didn’t get the memo.”

All those horrific and unjust episodes—eugenics, Prohibition, Soviet Man, the Spanish Inquisition—were supported and championed by the famous of the day, the media, the elites of the day. In most cases, the kind of folks who supported these disasters had little fear that they would have to endure any of the hardship, pain, or suffering these foul events created; they had distance. As the great thinker Nassim Taleb would say, “They had no skin the game.”

All these horrors were thought to be proven science, wonderful philosophy, unquestionable dogma, or enlightened social engineering—not so much in practice. Has the world changed much? Or, as the old saying goes, “History may not repeat itself, but it certainly rhymes.” Today, much of public policy, rules, laws, and such are not developed at the ground level. It seems to regular folks like us that we still get lectured at and demeaned by movie stars, politicians, professors, rich people, and our new aristocracy—our new royalty of former presidents, governors, senators, congresspersons, and their heirs who join the family business of government and who inappropriately never give up their titles, titles that belong to the offices, not them, not like earned titles like sergeant and captain, which you should keep.

So, who gets to make the rules for us in the fire service? If we recognize that there are those who think they are smarter than we are—and they may be—that does not mean that they are better than we are in deciding our future or mission. Sometimes they let us know they are better because they have alphabets after their names. They introduce themselves with insider titles that signal they are better, smarter, more intelligent, enlightened. They often are not. To quote Taleb again: “They are generally Intellectuals yet Idiots.” They may be formally educated, but so were Stalin, Hitler, Marx, and a host of other disasters.

To begin with, the elites have no skin in the game; we do. They have no share in the outcome; we do. “They believe there is no difference between academia and the real world; in the real world there is.” We have skin in the game. For us, firefighting is about honor, kindness, and sacrifice, the things that we know are existential to humanity.

It is our fire service, and to keep it we must continue to make the rules, locally. We cannot allow some self-appointed genius, some enlightened progressive bureaucrat who idolizes systems, and we certainly cannot allow some politician who has never had the guts to bunker up and lay it on the line dictate to us, those with skin in the game, how to fight fires. We make the rules, locally— rules we get to bend, break, and ignore because we have skin in the game. As Sextus Empiricus said around 180 AD, “Those who talk should do, and only those who do should talk.”

Our “firefighting” is a dirty, dangerous job. No suits and ties are needed, no advanced degrees are necessary. All it takes are thousands of hours of drills and training; thousands of hours of study and physical training; thousands of hours of getting certified, qualified, and cleared so you can learn something new every day; and some day, if you are lucky, after years of hard work and dedication, years of sweat, blood, sore muscles, bruises, bumps, and fractures, you might be worthy enough to be called a firefighter, a craftsperson, to be recognized by your peers as a highly skilled master of the most complex craft in history.

This is not to say that education isn’t important; it is. But to be a craftsperson who should talk and be listened to, we need to have experience, skin in the game. Skin in the game is local. Tip O’Neill was right: “All politics is local.” So is firefighting. O’Neill was proud; he spoke to the locals in Boston often, the real locals—longshoremen, butchers, shoe repair guys—folks with skin in the game.

Firefighters with skin in the game know the difference between action and cheap talk, between outcomes and intention, between practice and theory, between honor and reputation, between the tyranny of the collective and the indomitable strength of the individual.

Great fire departments, great firefighters make and break the rules, and we suffer the consequences—good and bad, locally. Ours is a noble profession, and we are honored because we protect others at our own personal risk; we have skin in the game. It is our local fire service, and we will not give it up.


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