What with the wild and weird Presidential campaign, and the focus on the Supreme Court in the wake of Scalia’s death, there’s much discussion about the operation of the federal government. But Americans have really been engaged in a much longer debate–largely uninformed–over the role of government in general.
The list of responsibilities that a local government must shoulder isn’t an especially long one. Typically it includes keeping the streets paved and the streetlights lit, maintaining adequate police and fire services, inspecting buildings, sometimes providing water. One hallmark of almost every local jurisdiction is the free public library.
So the proposal before the Kern County supervisors to turn over the county library system to a private company operating out of suburban Maryland marks a major step. If you’re looking for a sign that local political leaders are intent on giving up all pretense of working for the public interest, look no further.
As the columnist points out, the proposal to privatize the library system is part and parcel of the long slide in spending on public infrastructure, the result of viewing the public budget as an expense rather than an investment. The Kern County supervisors are choosing between turning the library over to a private, for-profit company, or imposing a sales tax increase of one-eighth of a cent to fund the libraries.
How, one might ask, does a company make a profit operating a library? According to the story, LSSI, the company in question, cuts down the number of employees, “squeezes” those who remain, and replaces existing pensions with cheaper 401K plans. Even then, the proposal defies logic.
Chronic underfunding and repeated budget cuts have allowed the Kern County libraries to deteriorate physically, while the county spends money instead on an 822-bed expansion of its jail. Library employees are among the lowest paid public workers in Kern County, the advocacy group says.
Turning management over to a firm that will add its own profits to all the other expenses incurred by a library system doesn’t seem on the surface to be a path to improved library services. The money will still have to be found to improve and maintain the physical plant, acquire books and magazines, and upgrade the system’s electronic access.
Something more fundamental is lost when a system such as libraries becomes privatized. The sense that government exists in part to provide infrastructure and services that should be immune from the influence of private interests.
Free public libraries create and nurture community. They cannot be replaced by bookstores (as former Mayor Goldsmith once advocated) or other for-profit ventures. Their importance in the age of the internet has actually grown, as they have moderated the digital divide and curated essential access to credible information.
Government isn’t a business. It exists to provide public goods– services that the private sector cannot and will not provide. When we starve and diminish it, we lose that which makes us a community–an “us”–rather than an assortment of winners and losers who simply occupy a common geography.
Privatized libraries are a step too far. Far too far.