Government, Economics, and the Public Library

I have to admit that I’m a novice in all three categories mentioned in the title of this post. However, I have taken a more than passing interest in them. Each one is a rich blessing from God upon everyone in the United States. I don’t have much time at the moment, so I will try to be brief. My attempts at brevity always result in confusion, so let me admit at the outset that it’s me. Feel free to ask in comments about anything that doesn’t hang together.

The God-given role of government is to curtail injustice, which naturally occurs in a fallen world with disturbing regularity. Government’s exercise of authority is entirely characterized by force. Laws are non-negotiable, and the best ones require little to no interpretation. They also ought to be just. Those on the wrong side of laws find themselves forced against their will in one way or another. It doesn’t matter if the law is “Don’t steal your neighbor’s car,” or “Pay your taxes on time.” Either way, government operates by force.

Economics is a system that originates with God as a part of His creation, but is often negatively influenced by man. It can be observed, described, and learned by man, but not created or improved. One way to describe it uses the concept of unfulfilled wants or needs. Based upon those wants or needs, people require things or services. That’s demand. Demand makes it profitable for people who can provide those things or services to do so. Based upon supply and demand, a cost may be evaluated, a price may be negotiated, and an exchange may be made to the advantage of all. This exchange is the polar opposite of things where government is involved, because it is 100% voluntary. Sometimes the alternatives to an exchange are terrible, like starvation. Still, the exchange itself is voluntary. By contrast, if paying your taxes would result in starvation, you’d better tighten your belt, because you have no choice. Government operates by force. A system based upon voluntary exchanges, where the people involved use good judgment, tends automatically to be efficient in any circumstance. It’s a glimpse of God’s wisdom in His creation. (See Veith’s book God at Work for more about this.)

The Public Library is a repository for knowledge accessible to anyone in the public. It’s a great force for good, promoting education, providing access to a volume of resources that would be far beyond economic possibility for most people, and allowing those who can afford buy some books for themselves to make those books available to the public (including themselves) indefinitely.

I can appreciate that last advantage especially, because my theological library has certain limits of shelf space, yet there are still many books I’d like to read that I don’t have yet. If I could be sure the public library would place them into its collection, I might donate some of my books to make more space for others. Or, I might find the newer ones already in the public library.

There is a problem with the way many public libraries are set up now. They rely for their operation upon a tax. Here, this tax is levied upon property owners by the local government. While the money is spent for a good purpose, this inevitably produces some economic inefficiencies, which tend to impoverish the entire community. Can I afford to pay the Library Tax? Maybe, but that’s not really the pertinent question. You see, every property owner will pay the Library Tax, whether they can “afford” it or not. The pertinent question is this: what other things will not happen because those property owners have been forced to pay the Library Tax? To illustrate:

  • One neighbor would have bought a new pair of shoes. He would have done this at the local shoe store. Part of the purchase price would have gone to the shoe manufacturer. Part of it would have gone to the retailer, who is saving up to pay for his children’s dental work.

  • Another neighbor would have donated his money as an offering at Church. There, it would have been used partly to pay for the living expenses of his pastor. Another part would have paid for the ongoing cost of operations at the church, which help to ensure that the gospel is preached in that community, which in turn (among other things) enriches the people with faith and enables them to live peacably together.

  • Another neighbor would have spent that money on a new circular saw, which he would have use to enhance his property. The purchase would have been a blessing to the retailer and manufacturer, and the property enhancements would have pleased the community, raising their property values.

But none of those things (or many others) would now be done, having been replaced by the ongoing expense of the public library. Some might think that’s a good substitute, but certainly not all who were forced to pay for it. In the end, freedom was lost, the economy suffered, and so on, in order to pay for that public library. In short: when the government is asked to provide something like a public library, the expense is inevitably much greater than it would be if the economy were used to provide it. The loss of individual freedom bothers me as much as the economic loss.

What if there’s a better way? Can a public library be supported privately? I think it can.

Already, much of the work and many assets of public libraries come from private donations. The only thing lacking is a reason, a supply that the library can offer to private members of the economy, for those members to voluntarily provide for the library’s needs. The question is one of demand: How can the private members of the community benefit from the public library?

I already mentioned a few benefits to individual citizens. If those with the means to donate understood that the library’s existence depends upon their voluntary donations, there would certainly be more donations given. If you want evidence, compare the voluntary offerings given to churches in European countries that are government-funded to the voluntary offerings given to churches in America, that are funded voluntarily. If a Norwegian attends his state church, there’s no reason to put anything in the plate, because he’s already provided money for the church in his taxes. (Of course, taxes aren’t given up voluntarily, which removes any value of that “gift” in terms of sanctification.)

Beside individual citizens, I think local businesses could be enticed to support the public library as well. Make the list of donors public and prominent, including the amounts donated, and allow businesses to use that information in their advertising. Also, work with the businesses to promote the library’s use to their patrons and employees, which would reinforce the advertising done and encourage a better-educated community and workforce.

For acquisitions, the public library could accept just about anything into its collection, providing it does not already have copies in equal or better condition than the ones donated. I would not have such a space crunch in my personal library, and many more people could benefit from my donations.

I think public libraries need not be an extension of government. Now, it’s possible that there are places where there is not enough local wealth to support a public library. I think that would have to be proven by a sincere attempt. Therefore, why not let a library run as a private business venture, or as competing ventures? The management of the collection could be determined by contract with the donors, which could also keep the business in its locality. An early hurdle would be that any such business would have to compete with the government-funded libraries already in existence. It would also need full access to the electronic catalog and inter-library loan systems currently in place. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but that doesn’t mean the answers don’t exist.

I’d love to hear what you think. Once we solve the public library question, we’ll move on to public schools.

One thought on “Government, Economics, and the Public Library

  1. Many of our public libraries began as private subscription libraries. The State governments,as part of their legislation for education,gradually,after first paying to establish school system libraries,took over funding for public municipal libraries. There is no real need for public libraries since they could be converted to private foundations paid for by subscription and private philanthropy. With the decline in literacy public subsidy amounts to the poor subsidizing the well-off.

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