Reinventing Civil Societarianism

by Zoe Pollock

Cory Doctorow recently excerpted part of this speech by author Philip Pullman, on how profit mechanisms don't apply to libraries:

That branch – how much money did it make last year? Why aren’t you charging higher fines? Why don’t you charge for library cards? Why don’t you charge for every catalogue search? Reserving books – you should charge a lot more for that. Those bookshelves over there – what’s on them? Philosophy? And how many people looked at them last week? Three? Empty those shelves and fill them up with celebrity memoirs.

E.D. Kain takes the opportunity to co-opt and pledge allegiance to reinvent Arnold Kling's concept of civil societarianism:

Profit is fine, as far as motivations go, but it leaves out a whole host of other human compulsions and needs and desires. Public libraries are a good example. How can we determine their value? All they do is cost in strictly financial terms. Some might argue that we should in some form or another privatize our libraries, or at least make them self-sufficient rather than rely on tax dollars. Of course this, like so many other privatization schemes, is hugely regressive and undermines the entire purpose of a public sphere to begin with. Which is perhaps the point. Or take prisons – is efficiency and cost-saving really a reason to turn incarceration into a profit-driven industry? ...

All institutions are prone to failure, corruption, capture, the temptation of power, rent-seeking. Human endeavors are littered with predictable and unpredictable calamities alike. To break it all down into these stark black and white terms – private sector good, government bad – misses the way we exist in real life, in these little patches of reality we inhabit. I would mourn the loss of my public library before I would mourn the loss of any number of corporations. Maybe that is selfish of me. If so, so be it. 

But I think part of creating a civil society is crafting a democratic consensus, redistributing wealth, and attempting however clumsily to build a world that is at once as free and as fair as possible. I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive. I don’t think taxes are theft. I think of taxes more as a mandate – if you want to be a part of society you have to buy in.

Updated 2/8: Just to clarify, Kain's version takes a left-wing approach to Kling's original right-wing version of civil societarianism.