Monday, July 12, 2010

Democracy and Libraries

In an effort to balance their budgets, cities across the nation are reducing the money they spend on public libraries. Not surprisingly, the Chronicle finds this "alarming":
For Americans of limited means, and that includes many Houstonians, public libraries are more than just a cozy place to spend a rainy day curled up with a good book. They're necessary tools to access the Internet, to find out about job and education opportunities, to seek out needed social services — in short, to better one's lot in life. 
Consider what the paper lumps together as a way to improve one's life: Searching for job opportunities and learning about social services. The Chronicle believes that looking for work and looking for a hand out are the same. The paper sees no distinction between those seeking to be productive and those who want to live at the expense of the productive. But this is hardly the only problem with the editorial.

The editorial goes on to ask a number of questions that it says needs serious debate:
  • Is our democracy actually put at risk by so many incremental decisions in so many different states and cities to shrink library schedules or close them altogether? 
  • Is there a cumulative effect we're overlooking?
  • Are they really "extras" in public budgets? 
  • Or do they belong in the category of core services? 
As is so often the case, these questions assume answers to more fundamental issues. The editorial does not raise these issues, apparently assuming that they are beyond question. The most important of these issues is: What is the nature and purpose of government? 

The Chronicle has long made clear that it believes government should provide for the needy, regulate the economy, and control our lives. As evidence, simply consult virtually any editorial printed by the paper. But this is not the purpose of government as envisioned by the Founding Fathers or by the facts of reality.

The Founders held that all men possess "certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." They held that the purpose of government is "to secure these rights"--to protect the rights of individuals from violation by other men and by government. And the Founders were correct.

Rights are a sanction to act without coercion or the permission of others. Rights recognize the fact that the sustenance and enjoyment of life require action. Rights recognize the fact that each of us want different things from life and should be free to pursue them as we judge best (so long as we respect the mutual rights of others). Government's purpose is to protect this fundamental moral right. Nothing more, and nothing less.

The Chronicle sees it much differently. The paper believes that government should compel or prohibit certain behavior. Whether it is forcing individuals to subsidize the health care of others or prohibiting certain types of land-use, the paper believes it proper for government to make it illegal for individuals to act according to their own rational judgment. And whose judgment should decide what is legal and illegal? The paper makes that clear: The majority.

Mistakenly believing that America was founded as a democracy (it is a constitutional republic) the paper believes that the "will of the people" should reign supreme. If the majority favors enslaving doctors or dictating how property owners may use their land, that position is proper and just merely because the majority supports it. This is--as the Founders correctly noted--nothing more than mob rule. It is a tyranny of the masses, in which truth and justice are determined by taking a vote.

Public libraries--like public education, public health care, public parks, public roads, and a litany of other public services--violate the rights of individuals by compelling them to provide financial support regardless of their own judgment. It matters not how many people support these institutions or believe that government should provide them. 


Mr. Moderate said...

I don't mind paying for libraries. It behooves society to provide a few tools to help people help themselves. Libraries are one of those tools. Other reasons to have libraries are they are a good place to store reference materials that are too expensive for any one person to buy, and they are a repository for knowledge that might otherwise be lost. Without the Houston Public Libraries, I would have had an impossible time doing some of the research on Houston History that I've done in an effort to better understand my neighborhood, and the City as a whole. Not everything is on the internet.

My Dad grew up poor after his father was killed by a train in 1933. Without public libraries, he would not have had a place to study and learn, and would not have been nearly as productive. HIs love of learning was passed to me and my brother, and we spent a significant amount of time in libraries growing up, which helped make us productive people.

Brian Phillips said...

History refutes your claims. In colonial days there were an abundance of private libraries that served virtually every interest and income level. For examples, see this article.

AMAI said...

Mr. Moderate, your arguments do not address the basic issue. Libraries should be privately owned and operated. When libraries for use by "the public" are privately owned, there is a profit incentive to keep the collection growing, and available to users.

Your assumption that a library run as a business would be unable to afford all these books is preposterous.

And look at what is happening to public libraries! Now they are facing reduced hours, reduced manpower, reduced funds to provide up to date materials. So, the promise of continuous availability of "publicly funded libraries" is shown to be a lie. What good is a public library to "the poor" or anyone else if the place has to be shut down for lack of funds?

When "everyone" owns it, nobody does.

Your willingness to help pay for libraries is admirable. Would you be a supporter of a privately owned library?

Brian Phillips said...

I agree with your comments.

Many people seem to think that because the government does something today, it has always done it. They conclude that private businesses can't or won't provide some service. In the process they ignore history, drop context (a private business can't compete with a government operated "business"), and more.