Saturday, June 21, 2008

Private sales, public elections

Another intelligent patron emailed me today. It's very much in keeping with my previous post. He cited what seems to be today's myth: the Internet has made libraries obsolete. Never mind that no one reads whole books on the computer, and certainly not children's books. I focused on, really, the idea of "need" again. I wrote, "...by every conceivable measure -- library visits, library reference questions, children's storytimes attended, adults attending programs and meetings, and of course, the plain number of items checked out -- library use [in Douglas County] is increasing at least three times faster than our population. That is not the profile of an obsolete institution. That looks, in fact, like a successful business facing extraordinary demand. In the private sector, demand equals sales. In the public sector, our costs do not include profits, so our 'sale' is conducted via elections."

I grew up reading, and greatly admiring, Ayn Rand. But ultimately, I rejected her brand of extreme libertarianism. Her fallacy was that she equated taxation with coercion. But taxation is nothing more than a cooperative purchasing agreement. What would be profit in the private sector, is reinvestment in infrastructure in the public (except, of course, where the public sector pays the private sector for services, such as architect fees, contractor fees, etc.).

Yes, if you don't pay your taxes, you go to jail. But the outcome of a successful tax election is a contract between the institution and the public: payment for services. If you break any other contract, you might go to jail, too.

Some libertarians will say, "Just charge those people who use the library for this demand, and use their money, not mine." But these are people for whom "the public good" no longer exists.

The Douglas County Libraries checked out more children's materials in 2007 than any other library in Colorado. We are not the biggest library. We don't have the most books. We don't have the largest population, or even the largest children's population. What we do have is a clear focus on literacy, and parents who value that. We promote reading, and more than a third of our business is now the pre-reader. How can anyone believe that that's not a good thing?

If we were to charge for each item, what would be the result? By raising the cost of borrowing a book, we would clearly reduce children's access to them. We'd have fewer books in fewer homes.

The gain, for some, is obvious. "I spend less." The loss is equally obvious: we get less. We get a community, a society, in which only those children whose parents inherit or earn discretionary money, and value literacy, are encouraged and actually enabled to read.

Library literature is full of stories we don't often share with the public at large. The gang member who hid out in the library, and read his way out of the ghetto. The child from a broken or violent home who found sanctuary and encouragement in a space he didn't have to rent, or buy something to sit in. The child of a laborer who became the CEO.

I am myself the child of a family who would not have paid to buy or borrow all the books I read. Those books made my life.

So one argument on behalf of library funding is this: until all children have independent incomes sufficient to enable their learning to the extent their natural curiosity and ability permit them, we need public support. Unless, of course, ignorance is more important to us.

4 comments:

Mark Wickens said...

Yes, if you don't pay your taxes, you go to jail. But the outcome of a successful tax election is a contract between the institution and the public: payment for services. If you break any other contract, you might go to jail, too.

Well, this doesn't really answer the objection does it? How valid is a contract that one is forced into?

Also, the choice is not publicly-funded libraries or no publicly-available libraries. There are, after all, private libraries open to the public. For example, http://www.nysoclib.org/. And a question that needs to be considered is how many more there might be if government got out of the business.

Lastly, if one is going to make a case for the morality of taking money from people without their consent, I think "we need public libraries" is way down the list of arguments that are likely to be convincing.

Jamie said...

Thanks for the link to the New York Society Library. These kinds of reading rooms have been around for awhile (since Ben Franklin, who later came to believe that the public library was better). But reading societies have never enjoyed anything like the vitality of use, or positive effect on community, of the public library.

You might feel forced into something if you didn't vote for it, but if the vote carries, then it's in effect for all. That's how democracy works; an election IS asking for consent. But it's a group consent, not one on one.

So you offer a libertarian argument, I guess. But how then, does this differ from the idea that there should be court systems? (Even libertarians support laws and court systems.) Once again, a decision can be made about your finances that you may not agree to, but are forced to comply with. Is that coercive? Or is it just playing by rules set up to ensure "the common good" -- a society that offers opportunity to all, and "equal justice under the law."

But I think you missed my point. We're not really talking about "need." We're talking about "wants." People who believe that a community with a public library is better, both for the individual and the group, support them. If you don't, you won't.

Mark Wickens said...

You might feel forced into something if you didn't vote for it, but if the vote carries, then it's in effect for all. That's how democracy works; an election IS asking for consent. But it's a group consent, not one on one.

This is not not about feelings, but facts. Democracy is as you describe, which is why it is wrong when used to deny people of their individual rights. It's also why the US is not a democracy, but a constitutional republic. The founders believed that we have rights that may not be infringed even if everyone were to vote for it. Property rights ought to have been one they enumerated, since without the right to keep what one earns, the right to pursue life and happiness is infringed.

how then, does this differ from the idea that there should be court systems? (Even libertarians support laws and court systems.) Once again, a decision can be made about your finances that you may not agree to, but are forced to comply with. Is that coercive? Or is it just playing by rules set up to ensure "the common good"

Libertarians of the Ayn Rand variety do believe that laws and courts are essential to a free society. Objective laws made and enforced to protect individual rights (not "the common good") are not coercive; they prevent coercion. A murder has no grounds for saying his rights are violated when he's imprisoned. His "agreement" is not required, since individual rights are not a matter of opinion, but of fact.

People who believe that a community with a public library is better, both for the individual and the group, support them.

It's an odd and rather undemanding kind of "support" that requires the spending of other people's money to get what you desire. If these people are truly supportive, they ought to give their own money, of their own free will. Coercive government is required only when a person does not support something.

Jamie said...

OK, so you're a pure libertarian. You believe that there are no circumstances under which taxation makes sense, unless each individual grants consent to it. That, of course, isn't the system under which our government operates. From a practical perspective, I find taxation an eminently sensible and cost-effective way to purchase things that benefit both me and my community. I don't find taxation -- which requires the informed consent of my community -- immoral by definition. As another example, there are public health measures, water purification measures, where there is a compelling need for funds that are unlikely to be raised in a timely, consistent, or reliable fashion by any other means.

You noted in your first post that "a question that needs to be considered is how many more [publicly available libraries] there might be if government got out of the business." Speculation, of course. But government typically steps in to provide services through which no "business" does or can exist, but which a majority of the community still desires.

I do find the uses to which some of my taxes are put immoral. But that's a different matter. And it certainly does not include libraries.