February 4, 2010

A Conservative at the Library

Justin Katz

On the Matt Allen Show, last night, Andrew admitted to using the public library (albeit a couple of times per year) and suggested a reason for RI towns' fiscal profligacy. Stream by clicking here, or download it.

My two cents: Public libraries are wonderful resource for students and people who don't work. During a period when my wife's job gave her summers off, she took our children to the library all of the time, where the books and various programs kept them engaged and learning. Other folks seeking to find ways to fill their days, and perhaps those who work from home, also benefit from the system. Whether that's enough of a reason to fund libraries is up to each town to decide. Personally, I think a certain baseline access to knowledge, especially now that libraries can be a public portal to the Internet, is worth maintaining.

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Libraries were all we had before the Internet. They were the original broad and deep pool of knowledge available to all.

Of course, the original free library as invented by Ben Franklin was funded by private benefactors who subscribed to its capital and operating costs purely as a matter of private philanthropy. The idea that libraries would be owned and funded by government violated the contemporary concept of the role of government in society.

Private philanthropy confers benefits on both donors and recipients. People who supported the libraries and other philanthropic institutions gained status and affection from their fellow citizens and the recognition that they had nobly done good things for their fellow man, while those fellow citizens benefited from the libraries, or fire departments, or hospitals.

When government takes over "good works" it perverts that social bond. Voluntary philanthropy becomes taxes extorted under the law's threat of force. The government usurps the philanthropist's social position and takes credit itself for what it did not provide (which is fraud). And the beneficiaries are no longer grateful, but come to see the benefits as "entitlements" to which they have a "right".

Thus we slide into the Hell of Progressivism. There is nothing compassionate about government being involved in social services. It's all about making people dependent on politicians and bureaucrats so they can be bribed or threatened to continue voting those politicians into power.

Posted by: BobN at February 4, 2010 6:55 AM

I think public libraries are a good use of tax money.
I grew up with the public library as an essential learning resource and a way to find and read books I had no access to at home-we weren't exactly rolling in dough.
Nowadays the libraries are evry essential,particularly in depressed areas,because children can find a place to do homework in relative peace and quiet and with resources available.some of the homes they come from are not very conducive to concentration on studies.Encouraging learning and reading is a very good building block in freeing people from a dependent mentality.
Older p[eople and those without transportation can also benefit from an available library,and access to the internet is not universal-plenty of folks can't afford a computer or internet service.
I believe libraries justify the expense in terms of what they give back to society.
There are other areas of waste of tax funds that can be targeted first.
I use the library system also.I can afford books I want,and obviously I have a computer,but the library has a lot of stuff available that I don't necessarily want to buy.
How about doing some SERIOUS cutting in the political hack ranks that makes up the General Assembly staff?

Posted by: joe bernstein at February 4, 2010 8:53 AM

Libraries are nice....I would rather have my trash picked up every week (although I did grow up in a town with no public trash collection and it was not a mess), the roads plowed, and the potholes filled 1st....

Posted by: tcc3 at February 4, 2010 9:02 AM

While I can't say that I exactly support them (they could without question be privately funded), public libraries are the least offensive government program to me.

Reasons for this include:
Low operating cost
No obvious externalities
Small amount of workers required
No inherent expansionist risk
Obvious benefit to society

Contrast this with the public school system (which we simply HAVE to have or the world will end for some reason) which fails miserably on all of the above grounds and should simply be scrapped for a private system.

My family takes out a good amount of books and movies each week, and we have done so as long as I can remember. I loved going to the library as a child. Libraries are also what I consider the best argument against copyright laws in general, none of the staunch copyright advocates have yet been able to answer me as to how writers or bookstores can ever make money when all of their books are available to the public for free at the local library. While I am not one of them, most people simply like owning things, who knew?

One thing that isn't mentioned though is the public goods theft problem. I'm not saying that things are never stolen from stores, but the amount stolen from libraries has to be astronomical. Last year I can think of at least 3 or 4 movies I looked for and couldn't find, only to be told that they didn't know where they were. Vanished without a trace. A few years ago I requested a DVD and it vanished in transit. Months later I found out from a librarian that an employee had stolen it, along with a bunch of other DVDs. 6 months after that, the same thing happened, and a different guy was eventually fired for doing the same thing. Good that they caught those guys, I guess, but obviously there is some kind of a systemic problem with how they do business if this keeps recurring, takes so long to solve, and can't even begin to account for the number of items that simply vanish without a trace (who hasn't heard a librarian tell them "we don't know where it is right now"). Can you imagine a private business operating that way? Lucky for them they can just write off the bill to the taxpayers.

Posted by: Dan at February 4, 2010 9:18 AM

Just for the sake of argument, it's one thing for government to provide services that are accessible to all citizens without regard to particular place of residence, age, income, or need -- whether or not a particular individual utilizes some or all of them. Fire, police, roads, libraries come to mind. And less temptation for politicians to curry favor by doling out goodies, particularly if government allows for competitive bidding rather than just being a monopoly provider.

It's an entirely different matter (illegitimate) for government to provide services (or money) for a particular individual's personal expenses or needs. Income (welfare checks / food stamps), health care, housing come to mind.

For similar reasons, it's an entirely different matter for government to raise revenue by sales taxes, or per capita taxes, than it is to (illegitimately) raise them differentially (progressively) based upon income.

Posted by: Ragin' Rhode Islander at February 4, 2010 9:51 AM


The points I was trying to make but didn't quite finish off (I confess, I'm still learing how to optimize my time in the end-of-hour quick-discussion format) were 1) that the idea that we can't have public libraries with reasonable hours and weekly trash pickup, in our current high-tax environment, when having both was possible 30 or 40 years ago in a lower-tax climate, is rubbish [cue rim-shot here] and 2) that for local officials to be saying that they want local spending on basic services to increase faster than than the rate of inflation, without expecting to have to increase their local taxes at a comparable rate, is the antithesis of any sort of "fiscal conservatism"

So how did we get to this mess? I would aruge that a major part of the problem is that when city and town governments are spending money they are directly accountable for raising, they are more likey to plan ahead. When, on the other hand, municipalities are spending money that's coming from "someone else" (like state aid), human nature takes over, and despite what might be good intentions, carefulness gets lost as officials assume there will always be some more someone elses to take some more money from when crunch time hits.

This dynamic of spending other people's money has been a major contibutor to setting RI on its current path of spending ever-increasing sums of money on an ever-declining quality of services. Human nature is not going to change any time soon, so as Matt suggested at the end of last night's segment, we need a serious reset of both what government does and how it does it in order to fix this.

Posted by: Andrew at February 4, 2010 2:28 PM

I strongly favor public libraries, although I think their life expectancy may have been limited by the internet.

As to private funding, consider the Athenaeum. They have a great children's progam, albiet on Saturdays only. I also know they ran through their endowment with crazy ideas like teaching book binding to illiterate kids. The board tends toward the left looney.

When people are looking around for ideas on where to spend "stimulus" money, I have never thought it would be all that expensive to offer wi-fi across the whole state. That would probably interfere with significant "supporters" such as Verizon and Comcast.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at February 4, 2010 4:02 PM
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