The idea that the private sector, AKA “business,” operates more effectively, efficiently, and with less corruption than government and its institutions is popular again. That message, with added shrill tones and imperative shouting, grows louder every day as the national election draws near.
There is plenty of recent evidence to the contrary, such as the huge bank scandal and the uncontrollable fluctuations in the stock market. The free market worshiped on Wall Street and Main Street often acts more like a crooked casino than a disciplined financial institution. But this is America: our values are rooted in our concept of freedom, which includes our shared belief in what we call “free enterprise” and our deeply rooted suspicion and dislike of both government and the taxes we pay to finance it.
From the beginning, we have been wary of, and often opposed to, government. We began with our opposition to taxation by tossing tea into Boston Harbor. Then we embarked on a successful revolution.
Later on, we developed political institutions and parties that tried to get their members elected on the proposition that we have too much government and pay too much in taxes. Parties for and against government wax and wane through every election cycle. Sometimes their disagreement with each other turns so bitter that they actually succeed in closing down our governments.
Even with these foundations, we have burdened ourselves with at least three expensive levels of government, though at any time one or more are partly dysfunctional. We have discovered that we require a little government to make our society work. We need the roads, the public schools, the police and firefighters, the national defense, the courts, and probably the president, Congress, and the Supreme Court. Of course I believe we also need libraries as part of that apparatus, especially to collect and disseminate the information we need to become educated, manage ourselves, and prosper.
There are solid reasons why these services must be provided by elected officials and paid for through taxation. Primary among them is that there is no way to make money providing them. To charge for roads, libraries, schools, or police would mean that many members of our society who need those services could not afford them.
Economists call those public sector institutions “public goods” that are most efficiently provided to everyone through taxes. So when I hear the refrain that we should “run it like a business” I have to remind myself, as I often do, that the public library is not a business and that there is a concrete rationale for it almost always being an institution of government.
Sorry to repeat myself, but I believe it is important to remind us that our libraries are an example of good government and not commerce. Sure, there are many business practices a library can effectively use. But it is important to remember that despite employing management or marketing innovations, we are still not competing in a marketplace; we are serving everyone—and often that is costly and not particularly efficient.
The most important, indeed fundamental, reason for government to provide libraries is that whenever anyone uses a library, everyone benefits. That is true of all of the services of our government, and we librarians ought to be proud to be part of it.