The furore over relatively modest reductions in public library provision shows the enormous challenge facing those seeking to reduce the size and cost of our bloated state.
At an annual cost to the taxpayer of just over £1bn, abolishing all taxpayer-funded library provision would only contribute a tiny proportion of the total savings the state should be trying to make. In fact, even on the most extreme estimates, only around 10% of libraries will close. So the savings will be small indeed.
In the context of overall public debt, running into trillions of pounds when unfunded liabilities are considered, state-funded library provision is unlikely to be the straw which breaks the backs of our children and grandchildren in attempting to pay down the awful legacy successive governments have left them.
But there is a point of principle at stake, and supporters of free markets need to rise to this challenge and seek to combat the special pleading which so often passes for public debate when ‘local services’ are threatened.
For reasons which will be obvious to anyone who takes the slightest interest in the world around them, library use is in overall decline. The total number of library visits in 2010 was 3.4 million lower than in 2009 – and weekly visits have fallen by a third in the last five years. Over 60% of adults have not set foot in a library in the last twelve months.
As a means of dispensing reading material, libraries are becoming antiquated. Around two thirds of households are hooked up to broadband, and so the huge amount of data which is freely accessible at the click of a button makes walking down to one’s local library to look up basic reference material seem odd to many.
About 1.2m second hand books are for sale in the UK via ebay, with prices starting from just a penny. If you want to browse around for something interesting to read, Amazon is a much better bet than the shelves in your local library. And the rapid growth of electronic books is making paper-based material a thing of the past for the increasing number of Ipad and Kindle users.
In contrast, if you divide the overall cost of libraries by the number of books lent, the taxpayer is shelling out about £3 per book. It is fair to point out that libraries do more than just lend books, but it is a major part of their work. Even at say £1.50 or £2 per book lent, this does seem an increasingly daft way of getting reading matter into people’s hands.
None of this washes with the save our libraries brigade though. Lots of people don’t have broadband access, they point out. Wikipedia isn’t always 100% reliable. Libraries are ‘hubs of the community’, hosting a wide range of educational events. Case studies are adduced, with individuals proclaiming how they wouldn’t have developed skill X or learnt to do Y without their public library.
The social good which libraries bring about is - it is suggested - immeasurable and intangible. Quite quickly, this morphs into an implication of the social good being essentially infinite. I’m not aware of the library campaigners identifying one single library amongst the 4,500 in the country which they believe should close. Neither have they set out any criteria to determine the basis upon which a library would ever close.
Celebrities such as Nicky Wire, bassist of the Manic Street Preachers, see library closures as a ‘direct attack on the soul of the country’. It’s unclear how much of his own personal fortune Mr Wire has pledged to the cause of keeping libraries open, if any at all.
The solution for the library campaigners should be pretty clear. If the closures are as unpopular as they suggest, pass the hat round and raise some money. It shouldn’t be that difficult. The entire library budget could be met by each British adult donating £25 a year (or maybe £60 a year from those who actually visit these places on a remotely regular basis). In other words, about the cost of a ticket to a Premier League football match. This might be a sizable sum of money for some people, but not for all that many. And those campaigners who can’t stretch to £60 can be confident that the rich members of the campaign such as Mr Wire and multi-millionaire novelist Philip Pullman will surely be willing to pay their own share several hundred or several thousand times over. This isn’t a flippant challenge; philanthropy has a proud and honourable history of providing just this sort of public service.
The real issue, of course, is that people like a service – such as libraries – but they don’t like paying for it directly. They think people like me – I don’t think I’ve visited a library in fifteen years and I consider them of rapidly diminishing importance – should be made to support their pet projects. The anger, rage and publicity generated by the save our libraries campaign just goes to prove the famous Frederic Bastiat adage that government is the great fiction through which everyone tries to live at the expense of everyone else. If their campaign is successful, we will have embraced that fiction even more tightly. That’s not a fair, free or even sustainable way to develop public policy.