It seems to be a new common comparison: Everyone likes the oh-so-socialist concept of the fire department. And it's just like universal health care! How in the world could you be against firemen, with their washboard abs and pinup calendars and fancy trucks and cute spotted dogs. They're the same damn thing as socialized medicine, so just get off your greedy bastard capitalist ass and pay up.
And to this I say: Non-sequitor much? They are exactly alike except that they're totally and absolutely different. In fact, they're different in so many ways that I'd have to attack them from multiple angles.
Let's be frank here. Health care insurance is -- well, insurance. Insurance is nothing more than a business contract where you (theoretically) enter on your own free will. You spread risk among a pool of similar risks. You insure some asset -- and if you lose or damage that asset, the contract agrees to replace or repair it. In the case of health insurance, your asset is your absolutely most valuable one: your own self.
Fire fighting is disaster mitigation. An asset (such as a home) has encountered a serious disaster (a fire, obviously) and firemen (with washboard abs) show up to intervene and keep loss at a minimum. This may mean they save a house. Or it may mean they contain the fire to one house to keep it from spreading to the house next door.
Okay, come on. Let's think of another analogy that is more apropos that is similar to health insurance... Come on. It should be right there on the tip of your tongue. I'm practically giving it away. Still don't get it? Fire insurance, Einstein. Health insurance is to protecting your body as fire insurance is to protecting your house. Fire insurance is generally not considered a right (at least not yet). And fire insurance is not usually provided by the government with universal coverage. Why not? Because it's based on risk pools. Do you really want to pay your taxes in to a single universal pool where your house gets the same coverage (at the same premium) as the gasoline production plant across town? Your house -- worth maybe $200,000 -- versus a billion dollar petrochemical plant. Your house, where the chance of catching on fire are slim versus the plant that makes about 16 highly flammable materials. Why in the world would you not want to nationalize fire insurance and spread the risk for those poor petrochemical production folks?
If you really, really must draw an analogy to a fire department, the true analogy is a health department... You know, those folks that talk about washing your hands and give out restaurant scores -- not fricking nationalized health insurance. If you want an analogy to a fireman (with washboard abs) you'd be better off comparing him to a doctor or a nurse.
The problem of scale
And the analogy suffers from a severe problem of scale -- as if you finally agree your child can have a hamster and come home to find she's made a pet of a goddamn elephant. A fire department is a small, localized unit with a very defined task. Nationalized health care is an enormous undertaking on the federal level. It's a health program brought to you by the same health geniuses that brought you the food pyramid and the lipiphobic high carbohydrate diet that's turned us all into walking heart attacks while avoiding any semblance of science it can possibly avoid.
And why, oh why, do we think that because fire departments are operated in a socialist manner (assuming that really was true) that this would mean everything else in our lives should operate this way? Why not suggest the opposite? "The current mass of government regulation and intervention has totally trashed the business of health care. We should restructure fire departments in a way to totally avoid making this mistake. They should be paid for in a 100% voluntary manner." Add in our scale problems and the "it works for a fire department, so it must work for an enormous nationwide health care system" is sort of the same argument as "this fire in the fireplace looks pretty, why don't we set the whole house on fire?"
...if we did that, maybe those firemen would show up and we'd get to see their washboard abs.