The Ghost in the Square
The greedy ghost understands profit all right. But that’s all he understands. What he doesn’t understand is enterprises that don’t make a profit, because they’re not set up to do that but to do something different. He doesn’t understand libraries at all, for instance. That branch – how much money did it make last year? Why aren’t you charging higher fines? Why don’t you charge for library cards? Why don’t you charge for every catalogue search? Reserving books – you should charge a lot more for that. Those bookshelves over there – what’s on them? Philosophy? And how many people looked at them last week? Three? Empty those shelves and fill them up with celebrity memoirs.
That’s all the greedy ghost thinks libraries are for…
I still remember the first library ticket I ever had. It must have been about 1957. My mother took me to the public library just off Battersea Park Road and enrolled me. I was thrilled. All those books, and I was allowed to borrow whichever I wanted! And I remember some of the first books I borrowed and fell in love with: the Moomin books by Tove Jansson; a French novel for children called A Hundred Million Francs; why did I like that? Why did I read it over and over again, and borrow it many times? I don’t know. But what a gift to give a child, this chance to discover that you can love a book and the characters in it, you can become their friend and share their adventures in your own imagination.
And the secrecy of it! The blessed privacy! No-one else can get in the way, no-one else can invade it, no-one else even knows what’s going on in that wonderful space that opens up between the reader and the book. That open democratic space full of thrills, full of excitement and fear, full of astonishment, where your own emotions and ideas are given back to you clarified, magnified, purified, valued. You’re a citizen of that great democratic space that opens up between you and the book. And the body that gave it to you is the public library. Can I possibly convey the magnitude of that gift?
This reminds me of this post by Roger Ebert, another writer who has written eloquently and often about similar issues.
To me, this pushback against privatization and the encroachment of private, profit-driven interests into the public sphere is perhaps the closest thing to authentic conservatism (at least in terms of wanting to conserve anything) that we have in this country (and why I think of Ebert as something of a conservative progressive in an odd sort of way).
Profit is fine, as far as motivations go, but it leaves out a whole host of other human compulsions and needs and desires. Public libraries are a good example. How can we determine their value? All they do is cost in strictly financial terms. Some might argue that we should in some form or another privatize our libraries, or at least make them self-sufficient rather than rely on tax dollars. Of course this, like so many other privatization schemes, is hugely regressive and undermines the entire purpose of a public sphere to begin with. Which is perhaps the point. Or take prisons – is efficiency and cost-saving really a reason to turn incarceration into a profit-driven industry?
There are more important freedoms than economic freedoms and even economic freedoms can be understood in different ways (not just the freedom to choose what to buy or how to run your business, for instance, but the freedom to be able to afford to buy things like healthcare in the first place). Public education, public libraries – these are essential pieces of our society that we can’t put a price tag on. In the red and black ink-stained columns of our little theoretical ledgers, all we can see is their cost, not the value they create. Which is why education is one of the first places we see cuts, then healthcare for the poor, then libraries and other ‘non-essential’ public services. And this worries me deeply.
I want to co-opt and completely reinvent the concept of civil societarianism – I almost like how Arnold Kling defines it up to a point. A libertarianism of voluntary association rather than pure rugged individualism; of Tocqueville not Rand; this sounds like a much better libertarianism than the one we’ve got. Here’s Kling:
Call me a Civil Societarian. I strongly support the institutions of civil society. These include families, corporations, religious groups, private schools, charities, trade associations, and the other peaceful, voluntary collective organizations that promote our individual and collective well-being.
The stereotypical libertarian might cite Ayn Rand and exalt the independent individual. Instead, a civil societarian would cite Alexis de Tocqueville, and his observation that “Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations.” These voluntary associations are what a civil societarian sees as the key to civilization.
Government may contribute to civil society, but it also intrudes on it (see the essay on Group Power). As an economist, I am keenly aware that government interference with markets tends to weaken them. Even the most well-intended interventions often have adverse consequences.
But the challenge that government poses to civil society goes beyond economics. When we treat government as a parent, we weaken the family. When we worship government, we overpower other religions. When we look to government every time there is a problem, we undermine those who have independent, creative solutions.
But I think Kling has blinders on. Here he is in another post:
A key to averting the loss of civil society is to overcome the progressive ideology championed by Chait. That ideology amounts to an all-out assault on civil society. Picture civil society as a nice lawn, and picture government as a weed. As the weed grows, the lawn gets wiped out. Civil Societarianism is the ideology that tries to grow the lawn. Progressivism is the ideology that tries to grow the weed.
Why is government the weed? How are civil society and government so easily delineated in the first place? How is this any more than an assertion dressed up in the fancy trappings of analogy? When I see our troops senselessly invading another country, newscasters talking about shock and awe, then I can start to buy it. But when I take my kids to the public library, or think back to my days in public school, it all falls apart rather abruptly. Suddenly it’s just a neat way to simplify things past the point of usefulness.
Sure, government intervention into the market may have horrible unintended side-effects. But might there also be horrible unintended consequences of choosing to not provide basic healthcare services to the poor and elderly? Might the loss of public libraries have its own small but powerful negative effect on civil society? Might we feel the tremors of a lost or badly degraded public school system shaking beneath our collective feet? I think so. I consider these institutions every bit as important as the one’s Kling lists. I would add to his list libraries, health clinics, public schools, labor unions, collectives, public parks, public transit – all integral pieces of our democratic, civil society. Of our future and the future of our civilization.
All institutions are prone to failure, corruption, capture, the temptation of power, rent-seeking. Human endeavors are littered with predictable and unpredictable calamities alike. To break it all down into these stark black and white terms – private sector good, government bad – misses the way we exist in real life, in these little patches of reality we inhabit. I would mourn the loss of my public library before I would mourn the loss of any number of corporations. Maybe that is selfish of me. If so, so be it.
But I think part of creating a civil society is crafting a democratic consensus, redistributing wealth, and attempting however clumsily to build a world that is at once as free and as fair as possible. I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive. I don’t think taxes are theft. I think of taxes more as a mandate – if you want to be a part of society you have to buy in. The roads don’t pave themselves as they say, and we’ve come to some societal understanding that a public sphere will have its place, that public servants will be a part of this process, and that taxes will pay for it all. We will be as free as possible, our markets and interactions as free as they can be from coercion by the state or other powerful players, but we will also leave room for a commons. We will work not just for the benefit of consumers or producers or mercurial Dow but also for the dignity of our workers, our families, and our communities. We will not let the poor fall from our public healthcare programs simply because we do not have the courage to raise taxes on the rich.
To me, that’s civil society. Freedom, yes. But also dignity. Also looking out for one another and sometimes using the state as the instrument of our compassion. So call me a Civil Societarian as well, but of a different color than my libertarian friends. Our public sphere is not a lawn of weeds. It is a part of what makes our society civil to begin with.