The “913” section of the Kansas City Star featured a pieceon Johnson County’s library system, written by Steve Rose. He describes the dire state of the library’s budget, how already they’ve culled their collections and reduced personnel. The county commissioners have now warned that future cuts may be coming, resulting in reduced funding by as much as 1.6 million in the best case scenario.
After rattling off some of the library’s impressive statistics from last year, Rose writes that “The library is clearly a magnet for a great many of our citizens.” He continues: “[The library is] a community asset that is the cornerstone of our quality of life.”
Given its popularity, it should be no surprise that the library will be one of the first programs cut by a government short of cash. The same method is used at the federal level when budgeting becomes tricky or politically difficult. Raising taxes is rarely a popular venture to undertake unless the government can “convince” the citizens how bad things would be without a tax increase.
Consider this report on the numerous ways in which people were affected by the government shutdown in 1995. The parks and passport services were two of the biggest items on the list, as far as inconveniencing people goes. People who otherwise couldn’t be bothered to get involved were no doubt livid enough to demand a compromise on the debt ceiling after being kicked out of their rooms at the Volcanoes National Park Hotel on the island of Honolulu, HI.
Rose’s solution, which he calls option D, is to not cut funding for the library at all. Instead, he would “tap a tiny bit of [the county’s] $65 million in reserves… Or, other agencies should be cut more to make up the difference.” Here’s another idea, call it choice E: eliminate all government funding of the library system and turn it over to private owners.
Instead of forcibly collecting money from residents who don’t use the library, shift the cost onto those who do. This will have the dual benefit of relieving victim taxpayers from having to fund the entertainment of others by force, while determining what the actual demand for the service is.
That no one should be made to pay for the entertainment of others ought to be obvious. The other issue – demand for library services – is less apparent, but no less important. As of now, we see that individuals use the library, which is “free.” Were a price placed on membership, or number of books borrowed, etc., we could learn what the actual demand was, and thus know whether it makes sense to even operate libraries in the first place.
In a free society it’s entirely likely that plenty of libraries would be open for business. What we can’t know a priori is under what terms. It may be profitable for a business to operate a library on a subscription or fee-based model, similar to that of Netflix or RedBox. Given the decreasing cost and increasing availability of digital media, it’s probably only a matter of time before this becomes standard anyway.
Another possibility is that libraries are provided by non-profits as a philanthropic venture. Indeed, the first library in the United States was opened with charitable funds from Benjamin Franklin. Certainly those who value reading would no doubt fund libraries voluntarily, and have more money to do so with, having less money extracted from them in taxes.
The idea that we should be free to choose for ourselves where and when and how we spend our money is of course radical, I know. But it shouldn’t be. What should be thought of as radical is the idea that individuals exist, in one degree or another, to provide things for “free” to others, and they have no say in the matter.