A Problem with Tax-Funded Libraries

Ben Boychuk takes on the smear that Palin was a book banner in today’s Rocky Mountain News. I am taking the facts he reports at face value:

What could possibly inspire such vitriol? A 12-year-old controversy, in which Palin, the newly elected mayor of Wasilla, asked city librarian Mary Ellen Emmons at least three times how she would feel if asked to remove objectionable books from library shelves. Naturally, Emmons said she would refuse. A few months later, Palin asked for Emmons’ resignation. The new mayor said she felt Emmons, who had been appointed by Palin’s predecessor and political rival, didn’t fully support her agenda and should step aside. But Palin made no mention of book banning in her demand for the librarian’s resignation. …

Palin insisted her questions about pulling controversial books from the library shelves were “rhetorical” and had to do with clarifying city policy. … The worst one could infer is that Palin raised the censorship issue in an ill-advised effort to appease some constituents, met resistance and let the matter drop to pursue more mundane city business. Emmons and Palin’s other political enemies are free to speculate and impugn motives all they want. But results matter. And the bottom line is, Palin didn’t ban anything.

This story illustrates a problem with spending tax dollars on libraries. Of necessity libraries must be selective in their purchases. They must implement some criteria for buying books and other items. (How a copy of the horrible Catwoman movie ended up on the shelves of my local library remains a mystery.) Thus, a library is bound to conflict with the values of many funders much of the time, in both its selections and omissions. Notably, a book a library doesn’t buy can’t be removed from the shelves, so it can’t be “censored.” But whether a book is not purchased or removed, it’s still not available there.

On a free market, who makes these decisions? Presumably most libraries would be nonprofit corporations with boards of directors. People would be free to fund, or abstain from funding, the library. By sending their money voluntarily to the library, funders would agree to put certain decisions in the hands of the library’s directors. Of course, people could fund particular books or broader selections.

Tax-funded libraries obscure the distinction between a library’s legitimate selection process and government censorship. Properly, censorship is defined as the forcible restriction of speech by government. But a tax-funded library automatically employs force to select and omit books. This inherently violates the rights of those forced to fund the library who would not otherwise choose to do so. By forcing some people to fund material that they find objectionable, tax-funded libraries violate their freedom of conscience.

This illustrates a pattern among the left. They cry for political involvement in various institutions, then they whine when — surprise, surprise — politicians have control over those institutions. While Palin’s interference with the local library is questionable, the problem was created by those who insist on making libraries political institutions.

2 thoughts on “A Problem with Tax-Funded Libraries”

  1. Thanks for linking to my op-ed. I think you make an interesting point here, although I think there is a decent case for public libraries fostering the sort of informed society that Jefferson, et. al., thought was indispensable for preserving a republican form of government.

    Anyway, that’s not really what I wanted to comment about. Your last point about Palin’s interference and the left’s double-standard is well-taken. But I might formulate it differently. Elected officials are accountable to voters. Bureaucrats aren’t.

    Thanks again.

  2. First, I would draw a distinction between public libraries and tax-funded ones. An informed society is indeed important; it is so important that information should not be politicized, as it necessarily is with tax funding.

    Elected officials are accountable to 51 percent of voters. Elected officials are selected by elected officials, so they are indirectly accountable. But the key point is that 51 percent of voters should not be able to force 49 percent to fund materials that the 51 percent approves of.

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