This article appeared on Substack on July 31, 2023.
A recent front in the culture wars is public libraries, such as in Front Royal, Virginia, where
a handful of residents ha[s] begun demanding the removal of certain books in the children’s section of Warren County’s only public library. Most of the titles involved LGBTQ+ themes.
In Libertarian Land, such conflicts do not arise, since public libraries do not exist.
Despite the word “public,” libraries are not a “public good” that private markets might undersupply.
The textbook public good is national defense. If any private group mounts an army that stands ready to defend the country, others will free ride. This makes it hard for the provider to finance its efforts and therefore discourages private provision.
No such issue exists for books; private provision is bountiful. People cannot free ride on book purchases by others.
The crucial benefit of leaving “libraries” to the marketplace is that no one’s tax dollars support the provision of particular books. If Amazon sells books that some people do not want their children to read, these people do not buy such books. Thus the polarization that results from public libraries is absent.
Advocates will respond that public libraries provide free access to books and thus benefit low‐income families. That is mainly false; public libraries typically locate in middle‐class neighborhoods and serve middle‐income families.
Fans of public provision might also argue that such libraries provide more than free access to books: story time, community events, author book signings, and the like. Private book stores, however, can do and provide these services if demand exists, perhaps because it brings in paying customers.