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InsiderOnline Blog: February 2011

Everything Depends on Cutting Public Libraries—Really, It Does!

Mark Littlewood has a point about public libraries. Officially, Britain’s national debt is somewhere in the neighborhood of £900 billion, but it runs into the trillions when unfunded liabilities are counted. Public libraries, meanwhile, cost UK taxpayers only about £1 billion. So why is Littlewood, who is the Director General of the Institute of Economic Affairs, which is the oldest of world’s free market think tanks, bothering to take on the “save-our-libraries brigade”?

The problem isn’t merely, as Littlewood aptly points out, that libraries are now a very inefficient way of distributing reading material. There’s a point of principle at stake:

Celebrities such as Nicky Wire, bassist of the Manic Street Preachers, see library closures as a ‘direct attack on the soul of the country’. It’s unclear how much of his own personal fortune Mr Wire has pledged to the cause of keeping libraries open, if any at all.

The solution for the library campaigners should be pretty clear. If the closures are as unpopular as they suggest, pass the hat round and raise some money. It shouldn’t be that difficult. The entire library budget could be met by each British adult donating £25 a year (or maybe £60 a year from those who actually visit these places on a remotely regular basis). In other words, about the cost of a ticket to a Premier League football match. This might be a sizable sum of money for some people, but not for all that many. And those campaigners who can’t stretch to £60 can be confident that the rich members of the campaign such as Mr Wire and multi-millionaire novelist Philip Pullman will surely be willing to pay their own share several hundred or several thousand times over. This isn’t a flippant challenge; philanthropy has a proud and honourable history of providing just this sort of public service.

The real issue, of course, is that people like a service – such as libraries – but they don’t like paying for it directly. They think people like me – I don’t think I’ve visited a library in fifteen years and I consider them of rapidly diminishing importance – should be made to support their pet projects. The anger, rage and publicity generated by the save our libraries campaign just goes to prove the famous Frederic Bastiat adage that government is the great fiction through which everyone tries to live at the expense of everyone else. If their campaign is successful, we will have embraced that fiction even more tightly. That’s not a fair, free or even sustainable way to develop public policy.

Until more people get Littlewood’s point, trimming bloated government will remain an exceptional challenge—for taxpayers everywhere. See A Simple Way to Keep Every Public Library Open … Institute of Economic Affairs Blog, February 9, 2011.

Posted on 02/09/11 11:26 AM by Alex Adrianson

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