Friday, October 05, 2007

Privatizing libraries

I don't think privatizing government functionsis a good idea in general. Generally governments do a better job of providing essential services than private companies, especially since there's no profit motive.

This story in particular is about Jackson County, Oregon hiring a private firm to run its library.

[...]LSSI will be in charge of buying books and says it will use its muscle to obtain deep discounts from suppliers. It will also be responsible for hiring, and says that while its salaries will be comparable to what the employees were making previously, the benefits will be less generous. The workers will lose the right to participate in Oregon's pension system for public employees and instead will qualify for a 401(k) program.


The contract with LSSI will be worth around $3 million a year; the county will also budget $1.3 million to maintain the buildings. Combined, that is about half of the $8 million a year the county previously spent on its libraries.

However, the libraries will be open a total of only 24 hours a week, compared with 40-plus hours for most branches before the shutdown. And LSSI plans to hire 50 to 60 full-time employees, down from 88 under county management.


There are several problems with this arrangement that are easily seen. The first is that this will inevitably cause a drop in the professionalism of the staff. The great majority of experienced librarians aren't going to accept any substantial cuts in their pay because quite simply there are enough jobs to go around. There are still plenty of publicly funded libraries that pay just fine. Of course the majority of library users aren't going to care about that until they discover the collection is becoming narrower and less diverse, which is the second problem. A lot of a librarian's job is what's called "collection development" in the biz. That means building and maintaining collections such as fiction and non-fiction for both adults and children. Building by buying new books and maintaining by replacing necessary older books and divesting of unnecessary ones. But the job of buying new books isn't as simple as looking at Amazon.com and seeing what's most popular. Generally there isn't enough money to buy every new book, so the librarian has to decide not only what's going to be popular with their readers, but what will serve the greatest number of patrons. That often means buying books they know won't get more than three or four uses a year.

Professional librarians do this. Bookstore clerks do not. Places like Barnes & Noble respond only to demand with a Wal-Mart style system of inventory. They'll have stacks and stacks of hot books by hot authors, but they may have only one (or none) of authors that don't go very high on the NY Times best-seller list. Compare what you can find of Gregory Benford at the local bookstore vs. the local library and you'll see what I mean. This is important because the distinction between a bookstore and a public library is that the bookstore exists to serve those who pay whereas a library exists to serve all. Librarians of public libraries are, furthermore, free to make the choice to invest in less popular works because they are insulated from managers whose job it is to ensure profitability.

I'm not saying that this LSSI is going to turn the library into another B&N, but still, you have to be suspicious of what they're going to do if they think they can turn a dime on the public library.

'The average citizen, when they walk into the library, they will see well-trained, well-educated, customer-service-oriented people working in the library,' said Bob Windrow.


But will they really? I know they're keeping a lot of the librarians, but will they continue to hire new librarians (people with a Masters of Library Science) as they go on? Or will they cut costs by cutting back on professionals? I can guarantee you that people who work at bookstores cannot help you find information either in books or on the internet the way that a trained, experienced librarian can. The idea is ludicrous.

I found someone online who supports privatizing libraries. If you like his point of view, then I suppose you can agree with him. I, however, find it repugnant.

The Moral Argument
Yet public library privatization remains a compelling option. One can make a strong moral argument that taxpayers should not be burdened with the costs of maintaining public libraries. Although figures vary, it is common for many people (in my county, a majority) to decline to use library services. Yet they are forced to pay taxes for their upkeep. As such, funding public libraries amounts to thievery.

Additionally, as people in a society have different mores, shall taxpayers be forced to support materials that they find objectionable? Just as many conservatives objected to tax-supported art, such as Robert Mapplethorpe's photography, others may object to paying for the purchase of Zane novels or pornographic westerns with their tax dollars. Conversely, liberals have good cause to wonder why they should be forced to pay for Rush Limbaugh books or Left Behind recordings.

In a private library, people can choose whose ideas to support with their money. Their money is not forcibly taken from them to support values that they find objectionable.


Basically, if you're not a rigid, self-righteous Christian, you might not want to be in favor of privatized libraries, as they'll soon be rid of anything you might like to read.

6 comments:

adam said...

So stupid.

Xanthippas said...

What a terrible argument for privatization!

First of all, is it thievery to be asked to pay for roads you don't use? Honestly, the argument that you shouldn't have to pay for things you don't use is a juvenile anti-tax argument.

Second, yes, libraries should be expected to purchase items that some people find objectionable. A professional library cannot spend their time worrying about who they offend, so long as a substantial community agrees that what they're putting on their shelves has some redeeming value. In other words, a minority cannot dictate what the library holds, anymore then they can dictate what people the City can provide services to.

Lastly...unless this guy thinks a city is going to print money to pay the private provider of the service, then taxpayer money goes to it anyway! In this case it's just a matter of degree.

Also, no one should be surprised to find out that they'll pay these guys just as much if not more to provide the same level of service the city could provide. Privatization is frequently ineffecient because of the presence of anti-market forces; private companies may have a monopoly, or they'll use political connections to get the job, or city leaders lack incentive to lower costs, etc. ,etc. That this happens literally all of the time with private companies providing public services is the single most powerful argument against privatization, and yet pro-privatization forces only ever seem to want to argue about principle, not results.

Anyway, this is a great idea if you basically want to overpay to provide less service, which is a great deal for the company providing the service. For the rest of us....eh, not so great. But then pro-privatization forces are often opposed to whatever the city is paying for in the first place (see the knucklehead in the post) so for them it works out either way. They just aren't usually as honest as that guy.

John said...

Thanks for the link! It's been more than two years since I wrote that post, so the arguments are not fresh in my mind, but I'd be glad to revisit them.

First of all, is it thievery to be asked to pay for roads you don't use? Honestly, the argument that you shouldn't have to pay for things you don't use is a juvenile anti-tax argument.

To answer your question, yes.

Second, yes, libraries should be expected to purchase items that some people find objectionable. A professional library cannot spend their time worrying about who they offend, so long as a substantial community agrees that what they're putting on their shelves has some redeeming value. In other words, a minority cannot dictate what the library holds, anymore then they can dictate what people the City can provide services to.

But that minority is still compelled to pay for those services that it objects to. In a free market system, however, that minority would be able to withhold its money from that company. For example, let's say that you don't like Wal-Mart's labor policies. You can respond by not shopping there, thereby refusing to participate in what you see as injustice.

But you can't boycott government. It takes your money. A public library continues to take money from you (i.e. taxes) whether you want their services or not. That's thievery.

Lastly...unless this guy thinks a city is going to print money to pay the private provider of the service, then taxpayer money goes to it anyway! In this case it's just a matter of degree.

What LSSI is doing is outsourcing, not privatization, so your argument is with them, not me.

Also, no one should be surprised to find out that they'll pay these guys just as much if not more to provide the same level of service the city could provide. Privatization is frequently ineffecient because of the presence of anti-market forces; private companies may have a monopoly, or they'll use political connections to get the job, or city leaders lack incentive to lower costs, etc. ,etc.

True. These problems can happen. But they are even more likely to happen in a government system than in a free market. What you've just presented is an argument for privatization, not against.

Nat-Wu said...

John, you're quite welcome for the link and I'm glad you came over here for a discussion. If you're arguing that living in an organized society simply means enforced slavery by taxation, then I suppose you can call taxes thievery. I don't believe that, nor do any but the most zealous libertarians. Taxes are the price you pay for living in a society with all the benefits. Just because you don't use some of the benefits doesn't mean people are stealing from you. Surely some people don't utilize all the benefits you use either. For example, people who walk to work don't need to pay for roads. Same for people who take trains. None of that means we shouldn't all chip in, unless you believe we should all segregate ourselves into societies of people who want roads vs. those who don't. Practically speaking, that's impossible. You have the choice of either living in society with full benefits or exiting from that society. You either share the costs and benefits with everybody no matter what they are, or you live on a mountain by yourself. That's the only way it can possibly work, so even if you think of taxes as thievery, well, there's not a thing anybody can do about it.

"What LSSI is doing is outsourcing, not privatization, so your argument is with them, not me." I don't see the difference there, even playing a game of semantics. Jackson County is not outsourcing to another public entity, therefore they are privatizing.

"True. These problems can happen. But they are even more likely to happen in a government system than in a free market."

I don't agree with your claim. To prove it, you need to show us examples that prove a pattern that government is more fallible than the for-profit companies. I will admit, as anyone will, that there are plenty of times government falls down on the job. BUT. There are plenty of times when you can see that a government which (at least theoretically) is impartial is absolutely necessary. A government has a responsibility to all it's citizens. A company only does to its shareholders and customers.

In the case of this library, you still have government picking up the tab. But the private company has a for-profit motive which puts it at cross-purposes with the public interest, for the reasons I've stated in my post. Why should government subsidize something that does not serve all citizens equally?

Your argument may have many merits, and I'm not going to try to shoot them all down. But to state it as simply as I see it, minorities are always the losers unless there is a government entity to enforce equality. In the library setting minorities means those who read sci-fi as opposed to romance, or Wiccan books as opposed to Christian. If you're a for-profit company and you have 10000 Christians for every Wiccan, I doubt you're going to think much about what kind of books you should acquire. But a public library has a responsibility to that lone patron. Call it a waste of money if you will, but I say it's a fair price to treat all people equally.

John said...

John, you're quite welcome for the link and I'm glad you came over here for a discussion. If you're arguing that living in an organized society simply means enforced slavery by taxation, then I suppose you can call taxes thievery. I don't believe that, nor do any but the most zealous libertarians. Taxes are the price you pay for living in a society with all the benefits. Just because you don't use some of the benefits doesn't mean people are stealing from you. Surely some people don't utilize all the benefits you use either. For example, people who walk to work don't need to pay for roads. Same for people who take trains. None of that means we shouldn't all chip in, unless you believe we should all segregate ourselves into societies of people who want roads vs. those who don't. Practically speaking, that's impossible. You have the choice of either living in society with full benefits or exiting from that society. You either share the costs and benefits with everybody no matter what they are, or you live on a mountain by yourself. That's the only way it can possibly work, so even if you think of taxes as thievery, well, there's not a thing anybody can do about it.

I recognize that there is indeed a need for government -- and therefore some degree of taxation. But government is nonetheless, coercion. It is thus at best what Thomas Jefferson called "a necessary evil and at worst, an intolerable one". Other libertarians might disagree with me, but I consider the three legitimate functions of government to be:

1. protect from invasion
2. protection from crime
3. enforce contracts

All other activities can be carried out in private enterprises. I'm afraid that I don't have time tonight to go into a lengthy exploration of why these functions are essential and others not, or why other libertarians are wrong to think that even these functions can be privatized, but I will lay this out as my political worldview.

"What LSSI is doing is outsourcing, not privatization, so your argument is with them, not me." I don't see the difference there, even playing a game of semantics. Jackson County is not outsourcing to another public entity, therefore they are privatizing.

With respect, it's simply not, and I don't know how the two can be confused. What I'm advocating is that government get completely out of the library business. If Jackson County followed this approach, they wouldn't merely outsource their library functions; they'd liquidate those assets entirely and never address library services again.

I don't agree with your claim. To prove it, you need to show us examples that prove a pattern that government is more fallible than the for-profit companies. I will admit, as anyone will, that there are plenty of times government falls down on the job. BUT. There are plenty of times when you can see that a government which (at least theoretically) is impartial is absolutely necessary. A government has a responsibility to all it's citizens. A company only does to its shareholders and customers.

Done. Well, maybe that's a little heavy handed. But my point is that the history of socialism is clearly a pattern demonstrating that free enterprise is more successful than government.

In the case of this library, you still have government picking up the tab. But the private company has a for-profit motive which puts it at cross-purposes with the public interest, for the reasons I've stated in my post. Why should government subsidize something that does not serve all citizens equally?

Agreed. That's why Jackson County should not only outsource its library services; it should sell them off entirely.

Your argument may have many merits, and I'm not going to try to shoot them all down. But to state it as simply as I see it, minorities are always the losers unless there is a government entity to enforce equality. In the library setting minorities means those who read sci-fi as opposed to romance, or Wiccan books as opposed to Christian. If you're a for-profit company and you have 10000 Christians for every Wiccan, I doubt you're going to think much about what kind of books you should acquire. But a public library has a responsibility to that lone patron. Call it a waste of money if you will, but I say it's a fair price to treat all people equally.

I think that we're operating from competing values. I consider the right to property to be the linchpin of a free society, and any degradation of those rights to be a danger to that society. The problem isn't that a public library might waste money; it's that it will certainly waste other people's money.

Again, we have to have some taxation to maintain even the minimal functions of government. So some thievery is necessary and unavoidable. If I had to steal from someone, I'd make sure that it was absolutely necessary and could not be helped. And getting access to the latest Stephen King novel, or even top-notch reference services wouldn't qualify as "absolutely necessary".

Nat-Wu said...

You're right, John, we do have different values. If the acquisition of personal property and protection of said property is the basis for freedom, then I am very much in favor of using government to give freedom to the poor at the expense of the rich. I believe all citizens should have equal freedom, which must mean equal access to information and ideas, and if that results in you paying for someone to read Stephen King, so be it. My taxes pay for a ton of worthless Christian self-help books, Christian fiction and Christian non-fiction (which is almost an oxymoron), but I don't gripe about that. I gripe about those people who complain that we use their money to buy things they don't want when we do the same thing for them.

I don't need to make anti-libertarian arguments here; such has been done sufficiently on your own site, and we have witnessed rampant capitalism in real life as an object lesson. Sure, there's a line government has to observe as to how involved it is in everyday life, but even you don't argue that there should be no government. You simply think the world would run better without much government. I find that to be a foolish notion given our experiment with unbridled capitalism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Not that it was bridled much before; surely the worse excess of capitalism was slavery.

You seem to feel that government exists to protect our freedom but that capitalism will take care of everything else. Again, I can only suggest you look at history to see that capitalism is the cause of the abuse of human freedoms. Every one of the obscenely wealthy European monarchies of the Renaissence up until WWI is a rebuke to your idea that market forces are a suitable replacement for an active government in human societies.

I accept that a free market is better than a managed economy, but wake up, man, capitalism itself is what government is defending us from. And lest you blame me for putting too much faith in government, look at the rest of the stuff we post on this blog. I know that most times, it's a choice of the lesser of two evils. Let's just not forget that those whose first priority is making money are willing to do a lot of evil to you and me.