Sell the Public Libraries

On the ballot in Steve County, Washington, is a referendum to cut off tax-funded (public) libraries in rural areas. We are supposed to find this a horrible and vicious thing to have on the ballot, a clear sign that antigovernment sentiment in the West (might it spread?) is getting so out of hand that it is even attacking literacy itself.

The public libraries being the earliest and perhaps ultimate symbol of the turn-of-century social uplift movement, the attempt to get rid of themu2014the first that has ever been documentedu2014is being denounced as flagrantly reactionary and dangerous. Indeed, we can look forward to 80 solid days of hysteria on this issue, starting now.

The New York Times, in reporting on the referendum, notes that the anti-public library movement is supported by people who want to "end all property taxes" and desire "government based on biblical tenets." If the specter of the Christian Right attempting to close libraries isn’t scary enough for you, the Times further notes that the voting population in question includes "small but persistent groups of people who are strongly antigovernment, even some militia supporters."

And this is only mid-August! By November, the good-government liberals at the Times, in their passionate fervor to save universal literacy from extinction, will probably discover that the referendum supporters are antigay, racist, and secessionist, with probable ties to the Oklahoma City bombing and perhaps even 9-11. They can say so with no more evidence than they currently give for the claim that the militias are somehow anti-library.

And in a very odd twist, the Times has suddenly shifted from its usual anti-homeschooling bias to invoking the cause of homeschoolers, who turn out to be some of the main users of public libraries. How can the antigovernment movement be so cruel hearted as to dream of ripping the library cards out of the hands of hard-working homeschooling moms? Will they stop at nothing to destroy every vestige of civilization in America?

Well, you know what? Many public libraries have been a disgrace for decades. Like most public institutions, they are architectural monstrosities. They have terrible hours, which they blame on underfunding. Their selection is often severely limited, vacillating between being out of date and carrying only the latest, tackiest bestsellers. Others have gradually purged all books that offer ideas the ruling regime rejects.

In an effort to attract more users, they have become the leading distributors of videos, CDs, and DVDs, thereby competing with for-profit businesses and doing so at taxpayer expense. And it was the public libraries, with their computers and net access, that managed to shut down the internet café business of the mid-1990s. With public libraries offering the same services for free, why should anyone pay?

Of course, we do pay, just indirectly. As with every publicly financed operation, libraries are voracious consumers of tax dollars. No matter how much money you throw at them, it is never enough. No one can whine about budgets like a public librarian. This is the main grounds on which the Stevens County libraries are being denounced. The salaries are too high, it seems, and those who benefit from the libraries are not paying the costs, while those who do pay for them have superior alternatives.

In arguing against public libraries, one might bring into question fundamental doctrines of the civic religion, like the claim that universal literacy is essential to a thriving civilization. This was the view that led Andrew Carnegie to bribe thousands of communities into building these tax-siphoning book warehouses in the first place. It was an early version of the same nonsense spouted in the 1990s that if everyone would just get on the internet, we would all be smart.

We might raise such questions, but it is not necessary to do so. Clearly, public libraries of some sort have broad support. And that is precisely the point: an institution this beloved and this desired by the public can be supported privately on a for-profit or non-profit basis. Cut the tie to government, and you would find that the services offered by libraries would be better targeted, more rationally organized, and less expensive.

A for-profit library? Why not? For nearly a hundred years, these public libraries have crowded out what might have been a thriving entrepreneurial sector of for-profit libraries. A for-profit library might, for example, have different lending policies based on a fee schedule. Why should all books be due in three weeks? Why shouldn’t customers who pay more enjoy a longer lending period?

I recall in my childhood near Boston a used bookstore that lent bestsellers for a dime a day. It was a thriving service that brought people into the store, a mutual benefit for the public and the firm. But then the public library horned in on this small bookstore’s business, and did so at public expense, forcing it out of business. In a small but serious way, it was the triumph of book socialism.

The complaint is raised that pro-profit libraries serve only narrow interests. But why should one library attempt to serve all the people? In a for-profit world, there might be children’s libraries, fiction libraries, romance-novel libraries, religious libraries, and technical libraries. If it seems implausible, consider that for-profit video-lending business got a huge headstart on the public libraries in providing the same service.

On a non-profit basis, it would be a snap to raise money for every kind of library in rural areas or the inner city. What business would turn down a chance to be seen as public-spirited by donating money? What matron of a wealthy family wouldn’t love to browbeat her husband into giving tens of thousands to the cause of literacy among the poor?

As for religious libraries, they already exist. Every major religion makes an effort to have a lending system for anyone who shows interest. Take note of why: public libraries don’t stock religious books, for the most part, because they are run by left-liberals. But in this area, as in genealogical studies, the private non-profit sector has stepped in to provide. It would do the same for the types of books that public libraries do carry.

Private libraries are not subject to the crazy political controversies that constantly afflict public libraries. Should public-library computers be able to access porn and hate sites? Should they carry Mark Twain? Shouldn’t they have a section designed only for blacks? What about gays and lesbians, who pay taxes to support the libraries. Why shouldn’t their interests be observed as well? But that offends other people who similarly pay for libraries.

All this nonsense disappears with private libraries. As for the research services of public libraries, private services like Google provide far more information than any public library in the history of the world. The choice isn’t between libraries and no libraries; it is between libraries funded by money stolen from some to benefit others, and libraries that are efficiently run and meet the needs of the community far better than any government does or can.

We don’t have to shut public libraries. Just sell them to the highest bidder.

Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr. [send him mail], is president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama, and editor of

Lew Rockwell Archives