Private Gain at the Public Expense

We should be on the Appalachian Trail today, but the threat of thunderstorms persuaded me that this week was not the time for a first backpacking trip with the No. 1 and No. 2 Sons. So of course it’s been wet without any actual lightning. NWS, please indicate a 60% probability of no lightning instead of a 40% probability of storms, kthxbye. Such is the toss of the dice.

Yesterday a contributor for Forbes online, which is not the same as the magazine, wrote (since revised) that libraries should be replaced by Amazon. In summary, Author is upset he pays taxes to support the library, suggests that Amazon and Starbucks are sufficient. Outrage ensued.

It’s hard to tell these days if people are serious (Bannon et al.) or if they are simply being outrageous to drive ad revenue (everyone on YouTube), or both (cha-ching!). Nonetheless, the responses I’ve seen to the suggestion, on Twitter obviously, have been from writers sympathetic to and with fond memories of libraries. I’m one. We’re upset that someone would even suggest taking away something that’s so much more than Amazon could ever be.

But let’s consider seriously the suggestion. Amazon provides books. Starbucks provides coffee, a place to sit, free WiFi, and a toilet, provided you buy coffee and aren’t black in Philadelphia. These services are provided to each customer as used, unlike the public library’s services, which, usually, are paid for from taxation of property owners, which will necessarily include taxing those who do not use the library. Some might consider that unfair. Taxes are, roughly speaking, merely theft, sometimes in a pretty guise, papered over with implicit consent.

So for Panos Mourdoukoutas to pay $495* a year for something he doesn’t use is just not right, but that’s not the argument he makes: he argues that the value provided is less than the amount paid, and that Amazon could do better at less cost.

The other day, out of the blue, No. 2 Son (10) offered that he thought libraries should have public showers, so that people without homes could have some place to bathe. I averred that was a swell idea, and remarked that some people use the showers at sports clubs and the YMCA in that fashion. (What’s the YMCA, he asked, which opened up a whole ‘nother line of investigation. Where is the YMCA these days?) I might have mentioned public baths, whether of New York or Rome.

These are two quite different conceptions of the public good. The one is concerned only with what affects the individual directly, and, leaving aside the matter of theft for the moment, sees any expense for which one is not receiving an immediate benefit as frivolity and waste, if not outright harm. The other is concerned with what is offered to one’s fellow man, regardless of one’s immediate needs. Is there a way to reconcile these two?

Charity has been that way. We depend on the largesse of those better off to pay voluntarily for the support of those less fortunate. We do so because our success is due to the grace of heaven and luck. As a corollary, we shame, or did, those who do not as miserly. And shame those who receive aid as free riders and parasites. But are not misers also parasites? Do they not benefit from a society to which they care to contribute naught? One may take all one can, as long as one cares for those one has impoverished. Should one? That’s a different question.

Is there a way to provide public services on a subscription basis where the service is actually public not private? Where the res publica can be maintained in the face of the res idiotica? The Library Company of Philadelphia is, or was, organized on that fashion, as a subscription service.

Let’s pause for a moment. Does one seriously believe that Amazon and Starbucks would replace the existing library? Or would it be be more likely that funds for the library would be redirected to Amazon, thus again using the public purse to enrich private interests?

This is what Mr. Mourdoukoutas suggests:

Amazon should open their own bookstores in all local communities.  [emphasis mine] They can replace local libraries and save taxpayers lots of money, while enhancing the value of their stock.

That is, let Amazon destroy Barnes & Noble (not a local bookstore, by any stretch of the imagination) as well as that labor of love on the corner, erect some imitation in its place, and then destroy the public equivalent. Give the public’s money, those stolen taxes, to someone who can then charge the people again. Is this not the American Way?

If one were to embrace the miserly parasite’s conception of society, would we not but find a war of all against all? How is this different, except the masses have no hope of winning?


*My landlord would pay $103 if he paid his taxes. Mr. Mourdoukoutas’s property must be a big more luxurious than average.


Also published on Medium.

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