The Nasty Librarian: A Lesson in State Compulsion


The nasty librarian is a reality that has left many Americans feeling hopeless; a mere hiccup answered with a scorching glare, a sneeze countered with a venomous clearing of the throat. Who in this country hasn't had likewise experiences? What smiling grade-school child, eager to learn, ready to ask questions, hasn't had their inquisitive spirit squelched by some librarian rogue? Most of us have simply thrown up our hands in defeat, convinced that all librarians are mean, and that trying to change them is largely a waste of time.

But there is hope. There is a possible remedy to this seemingly eternal tradition. The hope, in a single word, is competition. If, heaven forbid, libraries actually had to vie for their customers in an open, free market, there would be a much greater incentive for librarians to be kind to customers. The incentive exists because if libraries hired mean employees, customers would take their business elsewhere.

Of course, even in such a free system, spiteful librarians would still surface. After all, we've all had bad experiences with private firms and businesses and the same would likely continue with libraries. However, the crucially important distinction between a free market library and a government funded library rests in one's power as a consumer. In a capitalist system, the consumer is sovereign. He decides who sinks and who stays afloat. Because a private library, like any other business, would depend on repeat sales, the customer has tremendous power over the library. If he is not served properly and to his liking, he need only refrain from a second purchase to voice his opinion. The effect of this will be to penalize the library. Likewise, whenever a library pleases a customer, the customer unconsciously rewards the library by repeat purchases.

Unfortunately, in the current library market, the government coercively confiscates the wealth of the public and doles it out to the libraries. This destroys the incentive to please customers because such an effort is no longer necessary for the library to continue its activities. In other words, libraries can disregard the desires of consumers and still stay in business because there is no possibility of suffering losses. Thus allowing those mean, old, hag librarians to further their assault on learning. Furthermore, there is no justice in taking the wealth of a book store owner and transferring it to a monstrous, 35,000 square foot library.

Think about it. Video rental firms, a very similar operation, perform in the private market where they have to please customers or close up shop. Thus, they are always scrambling to improve their services. Many offer scores of free rentals. It is entirely unheard of for a video store not to make available new releases. Some even guarantee that the latest and most sought after videos will be in stock. When is the last time you've seen a "New Release" section in a public library?

Another sensible argument against government funding of libraries is the depressing fact that they are funded through coercion and violence. After all, if you decide not to fork over your earnings to the state to fund libraries, you'll find yourself sitting in a prison cell. Now, there are reasonable arguments for some taxation, after all, it could be difficult for private companies to provide a national defense system or similar so-called public goods. But a free and peaceful society should always seek to minimize the violence and coercion implicit in all government operations and therefore should seek to privatize libraries.

Of course, my quip about nasty librarians was written tongue in cheek. It was a silly extrapolation on the archetypical librarian to illustrate a point about libraries in particular and economics in general. Competition and the threat of competition are crucial aspects of free market capitalism. Whenever the public grants to the government the power to maintain monopolies or to simply restrict competition on behalf of businesses, a vital component of the market economy is removed. This government protection racket has hurt consumers in every area it has taken place: education, healthcare, aviation, agriculture, energy and even road building.

Many will consider this suggestion to be callous; they may even accuse me of a sinister desire to strip from the hands of children books and other tools of learning. But this sort of demagoguery adds nothing to the conversation. The free market has made possible the sort of prosperity and leisure time that children enjoy today. The fact that children no longer need to work in the fields and factories to provide their family with the necessities of life is due to the advances in labor saving technology made possible by the free market. Now, children may focus on learning.

The free market has been good to children thus far, and there is no reason to doubt it now.

October 20, 2007