Privatizing the public library
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What’s the harm?
David Streitfeld at the NYT reports that Library Systems & Services (LSSSI), a for-profit corporation, has contracted to run the public libraries of numerous municipalities. Their reach is expanding rapidly, Streitfeld reports, and in terms of number of branches, they rank right behind Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago.
This raises interesting questions about the proper role of the free market in delivering what are perceived as social necessities, either to the healthy functioning of a democratic system as a whole or to individuals operating within such a society. If we assume that free public libraries are such a neccesity, I don’t see much cause for concern.
The online viagra general worries with privatizing public goods are (a) that certain people will be priced out, (b) that all people will be forced to pay more in general or to pay “too much,” (c) that some goods are so important that no one should have to pay at all (this is a ridiculous argument, since the goods have to come from somewhere, and someone is paying for them, probably through taxes), (d) that, whereas governments don’t usually go out of business (and can deliver goods at a loss), companies do all the time, which would threaten the delivery of the good in question, and (e) that companies working from profit-maximizing motives won’t deliver the good as well, generously, or graciously as a government working with the public welfare in mind.
Some of these are real worries, but in this case, the good is still delivered free-of-charge to all; the libraries are still public and free. And, if LSSI were ever to go out of business, their government contracts would be broken, and the municipalities could return to the status quo and run the libraries themselves. What’s more, the fiscal problems municipalities are currently dealing with may threaten their public library systems. And turning them over to a private company, which maybe ruthlessly cuts staff, pension plans and other costs, may be the best way to guarantee the good for the time being.
There are, however, also slippery slope concerns: that beneficial privatization here and there might set down some principle that would lead to a situation where too much of the government is run by businesses. There’s something there, but like most slippery slope arguments, it’s too vague and uncertain to hang your hat or, er, book on.