It is difficult to be surprised anymore when you see politics seep into every nook and cranny of our lives. However, it was still a bit jarring when my wife showed me a Christmas children’s story that revolves around politics.
The book in question is David Davis’ Librarian’s Night Before Christmas. I highly recommend against indoctrinating your children with this tract – though the author certainly has to be credited with entrepreneurialism (of the worst kind) by writing a book that librarians all around the country were probably falling over themselves to buy.
The book begins with a public librarian shelving and mending books on overtime since “the powers that be” cut the library’s staffing budget (the horror). Of course, the saintly librarian cheerily fulfills the public’s needs anyway (what public servant doesn’t?) and then wonders if the love of “great books” has “come to an end” (as if the classics aren’t available anywhere else, not to mention that the great books section of contemporary public libraries is a tiny fraction of their collections).
Well, fortunately, Santa arrives and saves the day as he and his elves resupply the library with classics such as Hawthorne and Austen as well as children’s books and romance novels. Of course, Santa also chides “a censor, who wished some books gone” (forgetting of course that even those who typically want to prevent libraries from buying certain books with public funds aren’t arguing for censorship). Saint Nick, alas, has no way to deal with the problem of the “book-budget cutters” “Cause if they could read, they just read Ayn Rand” (since only a knuckle-dragging idiot would want to limit public expenditures on libraries)! Then Santa takes off calling for people to do a good deed and teach others to read.
There is one virtue of the book: it mocks politicians for pork-barrel spending. However, there is no realization that a lot of library spending is really just middle and upper class welfare. In particular, public libraries fund private entertainment and research – so is it really that much more noble than typical pork barrel spending? In the case of this book, Santa doesn’t deliver non-fiction books or government documents that would educate citizens about government – and thus could be justified within a classical liberal framework. Instead, Santa delivered romances for one of the citizens, Molly McNast. Isn’t this kind of targeted private entertainment what the library would have done with public funds if it hadn’t been for the nasty budget-cutters? And can this really be a proper end of our tax dollars (remembering that they are coerced, not volunteered)?
I think a classical liberal could justify the existence of public libraries that function as repositories of government documents and contain basic books on government, history, philosophy, economics, and history. These would be justified on the grounds that a democracy requires a citizenry that has the basic knowledge requisite to be self-governing. Much of this could now be provided by a few computer terminals hooked up to the web. In the same way that publicly funded education can be justified, a robust children’s section could also be warranted so as to encourage basic skills formation (though the library should be colocated with a local publicly funded school so as to avoid double spending).
However, I see no way, consistent with a free society, to justify the majority of what is contained in our public libraries today. These places are filled with rows of fiction (romances, horror, etc), trashy magazine, and even DVDs of recent blockbuster films! There certainly isn’t a market failure argument for why these should be publicly provided – only a welfare argument that can’t fly in a truly free society. Indeed, the paternalist variant of welfare statism might insist that the public provide only those things that raise up the least well-off rather than pandering to baser tastes such as Fabio-adorned romance novels, Cosmopolitan magazine, and morally questionable movies such as Natural Born Killers. Unfortunately, library collections today are decidedly low brow while sometimes even lacking that which could be justified in a free society.