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Post 0

Tuesday, November 26, 2002 - 5:58amSanction this postReply
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Excellent article, Jeff. Though I still have a few sentimental memories of the public library I frequented as a child, I have always bought my books as an adult instead of borrowing them from the government; I want to own my knowledge and the stories I enjoy, instead of having nothing borrowed knowledge and borrowed dreams.

I wonder how difficult it would be to apply Blockbuster Video's business model to books instead of films on DVD. A hardcover book rented at $5 for a week could pay for itself within three months, most paperbacks within a month. Reference books would probably be rented at a higher rate; perhaps $5 per day.

But there is also the matter of storing the books. A building is needed with protection from the elements, rodents, and insects. Shelves are required to store and arrange the books. At least two competent librarians per library are necessary; a library is no place for semi-literate teenagers to earn pocket money.

And demand... just how much demand for a commercial library exists? Stores like Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com make good money selling books; is it really worth it to rent most books instead of buying them? For references or most novels, I think it would be worth it to rent instead of buy. Would it be worthwhile to compete with B&N? Hmmm... probably not, but maybe we could prove that they could make money renting books out as well as simply selling them.

Post 1

Tuesday, November 26, 2002 - 8:47amSanction this postReply
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my sentimental memories of the public libraries involve never finding the book I want and shelf space taken up by books that were last loaned out in the 70s. Private Libraries are an excellent idea.

Post 2

Tuesday, November 26, 2002 - 9:35amSanction this postReply
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Yes, they certainly are. I don't think they'd work too well in rural areas, though, but who cares? Most of the people with money live in the cities and suburbs anyway.

Post 3

Tuesday, November 26, 2002 - 2:42pmSanction this postReply
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I think that in 5 or 10 years when we all have ebook readers and can just download whatever we want to read, libraries of any sort will have trouble staying around. The days of the paper book are numbered, and so are the days of the library.

Post 4

Tuesday, November 26, 2002 - 2:56pmSanction this postReply
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I'm not sure I always prefer to read a book than read something online. Maybe their could be a dial a book service much like the Pizza service we have.

Post 5

Tuesday, November 26, 2002 - 4:17pmSanction this postReply
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Well, Jeff, as much as I enjoy being able to put an etext from Project Gutenberg on my handcomputer, I still prefer treeware books: I don't have to worry about batteries, faulty software, hardware failure or (unlikely, I know!) an electromagnetic pulse.

Still, having The Count of Monte Cristo and the collected poems of Percy Bysse Shelley and Richard Lovelace on my handcomputer along with oggs of Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Deep Purple is a delightful prospect.

Post 6

Wednesday, November 27, 2002 - 6:29amSanction this postReply
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How can I curl up to a great e-book on my couch?? I can barely read more than a Free Rad article online, I need things printed out. :) There will always be paperbacks.

It never crossed my mind honestly in reading the article to privatize book rentals. Close public libraries, and if there's demand/profit to be made, someone will privatize.

Movies work for a few reasons that books might not. Buying new is fairly expensive, you can watch it overnight, there is high demand. The fact that there currently aren't private libraries makes me think it's because no one's found a way to make it worthwhile.

Post 7

Wednesday, November 27, 2002 - 6:53amSanction this postReply
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I think that we have to be very careful in extrapolating from the current state of affairs to what would happen in pure capitalism. The failure of our imagination to envision how something would work is precisely that --- a failure of imagination. Few thought that FedEx would be successful. For many years, lighthouses were held up as an example of a "public good" until actual research showed how they were, in fact, privately funded.

The existing de facto monopoly of public libraries probably does make it difficult for a private concern, but without tax-supported libraries the situation could be very different.

Post 8

Wednesday, November 27, 2002 - 6:54amSanction this postReply
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Get a Palm Pilot, Elizabeth. They're pretty cheap these days; I've seen PDAs running PalmOS for around $100, and you can use 'em to read eBooks, among other things.

Post 9

Wednesday, November 27, 2002 - 7:24amSanction this postReply
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Kernon's right: just because nobody has yet figured out how to make money by running a commercial library doesn't mean that nobody will ever do so. Will it be easy? Chaos, no; being a pioneer is rarely easy -- just ask Howard Roark.

Post 10

Wednesday, November 27, 2002 - 9:33amSanction this postReply
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I agree that just because no one's done it yet that doesn't mean it can't be done & done lucratively. You can rent movies at Blockbuster, tools at Home Depot, and maybe books at B&N is coming next. If not interested in renting many myself, I'd certainly buy the used ones (like they do in Blockbuster now when something is no longer a new release).

As for a palm pilot eBook, maybe I could get used to it. But can you make notes on them? Can you bookmark pages?

Post 11

Wednesday, November 27, 2002 - 2:31pmSanction this postReply
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I second Kernon's point. Publicly-funded libraries make it difficult or impossible for private ones to compete. This effect of government interference is called "crowding out". And it happens in many other areas too. Every service offered by government and funded through taxes potentially crowds out the commercial provision of that service -- and the further development of civil society.

Post 12

Thursday, November 28, 2002 - 2:19amSanction this postReply
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Jeff, there are at least a couple of flaws in your argument for private libraries.

First, it’s debatable that the economics would stack up. Commercial video outlets typically rent their products overnight, or for a day or two, while library books are usually borrowed for two to three weeks. If books were rented on the same commercial basis as videos, it’s likely that the cost of borrowing would become prohibitive.

Second, and more importantly, you’re not comparing apples with apples. The goal of outlets such as Blockbusters is to shift the greatest amount of product for the greatest profit. That is a perfectly legitimate goal, but it’s not the business of public libraries, which have a wider brief: to impart information to all comers.

As such, public libraries are not limited to shifting any particular product. That is why, as you note, that libraries offer information in a variety of formats. And since information is part of a social nexus, in a public library you will also see people engaging in a variety of related activities: browsing, reading books and magazines, doing research and homework, surfing the net, reading to children, meeting other people, and so on. And of course, out back there are qualified people to bring this all together.

Contrast this with the Blockbuster experience: find your video, pay your money to a kid who can read a label, out the door.

The “products” on offer are quite different. Of course, there are downsides to public libraries, among them the dreaded Soviet breadline. But the alternative to queuing is money. Information would then be rationed according to means. And that would be a retrograde step.

Post 13

Thursday, November 28, 2002 - 4:18amSanction this postReply
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Brendan,

If rationing a good according to means is a retrograde step, then we’re living in an extremely retrograde world. Food is rationed according to means. Housing is rationed according to means. Pharmaceutical drugs are rationed according to means. Entertainment is rationed according to means.

If all these goods are rationed according to means, why should information and education be treated differently?

It is precisely because of public education -- government interference in the mechanisms for delivering educational information -- that throughout the world education is backward in comparison with other sectors of most countries’ economies. We live in a world of electric cars, microwave ovens, mobile phones, the Internet, satellite TV and multimedia. Our lives are very different to that of our grandparents. Yet classrooms and libraries look much the same as they have done for centuries (with the exception of a few token computers).

The difference between the non-educational sector of the economy and the educational sector is like the difference between East and West Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Socialism wreaks havoc with production and distribution.

Socialised education and socialised libraries have prevented the market from delivering innovative mechanisms to provide all people -- from the most disadvantaged to the most affluent -- with quality education and information. Market-driven education and libraries would enrich learners both materially (by providing relevant and marketable knowledge and skills) and spiritually (by spreading the life-affirming values that are intimately connected with the quest for knowledge).

Post 14

Thursday, November 28, 2002 - 7:09amSanction this postReply
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Brendan,

Regarding:
First, it’s debatable that the economics would stack up.
Commercial video outlets typically rent their products
overnight, or for a day or two, while library books are
usually borrowed for two to three weeks. If books were
rented on the same commercial basis as videos, it’s likely
that the cost of borrowing would become prohibitive.
Again, this is a failure of imagination. For example, in the States, there are several DVD rental services that mail you the DVD's and allow you to keep them for as long as you want. These are commercial enterprises, and not charitable organizations. Frankly, I don't know how well the mail-order DVD model works in terms of profits, but I could imagine commercial book lenders charging by the day, giving customers the ability to control costs and encouraging fast returns.

Post 15

Thursday, November 28, 2002 - 12:53pmSanction this postReply
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Of course there may be pay as you go libraries, where you pay for the book you own. Or members libraries where you pay a membership fee per month and allowed to take out as many books as you like - or even a combination of membership and user fees. It will be up to the market to decide.

Post 16

Friday, November 29, 2002 - 5:04amSanction this postReply
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Barry wrote: “Food … Housing…Pharmaceutical drugs …Entertainment [are] rationed according to means. If all these goods are rationed according to means, why should information and education be treated differently?”

Brendan replies: Barry, you’ve shifted the topic to education, whereas my argument is about libraries. That said, the short answer to your question is that governments provide various subsidies and support mechanisms that serve to underpin purchasing power. In an economy that is wholly laissez-faire, these mechanisms would not exist. Again, it’s a matter of comparing apples with apples.

Otherwise, the gist of your argument is that government intervention in various economic activities “crowds out” the private sector.

While I agree that this might be the case in some sectors – utilities such as energy and water spring to mind – information is a different beast. When I walk down the high street, I see that booksellers, video outlets, music retailers and internet cafes all seem to doing a reasonable trade, despite the competition from public libraries. It’s not obvious that government is crowding out the private sector in this instance.

Kernon wrote: “Again, this is a failure of imagination…there are several DVD rental services that mail you the DVD's and allow you to keep them for as long as you want.”

Brendan replies: If the above operation is profitable and achieves the goals that we have at least tacitly agreed on, private libraries could be an option. But the fact that there is little or no market in private book lending suggests that it would not be economically viable.

I’ll be out of town for a few days. See you next week.

Post 17

Saturday, November 30, 2002 - 8:57amSanction this postReply
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Brendan,

Your argument seems to have the following form:

Major premise: Where little or no commercial market exists in a particular economic activity, that activity is unlikely to be economically viable.

Minor premise: Little or no commercial market exists for private book lending.

Conclusion: Private book lending is unlikely to be economically viable.

The first problem with this argument is that the major premise is very weak. There are many possible reasons for a lack of commercial activity in any particular good, and unlikely economic viability is only one of them. Here are a few others: it simply hasn’t occurred to anyone; government regulation against the activity; and public funding of the activity which crowds out commercial competition.

Where you take “little or no market in private book lending” as evidence that it is not economically viable, I take that as evidence that private libraries have been completely crowded out by government-owned libraries.

The second problem with this argument is that even if the conclusion is true -- that private book lending is unlikely to be economically viable -- it doesn’t follow that privately owned libraries -- freely open to the public -- would not exist without support from the state.

There is no reason why access to private libraries could not be free (or virtually free). After all many great libraries -- throughout history and today -- were founded and funded privately yet open to public use.

For examples, see:
Roman libraries
Some other famous libraries

If government-owned, public libraries were handed over to the private sector they could develop new, innovative commercial models for generating profit, or they could simply operate in the same manner as non-profit organisations funded by private grants. This is what I meant when I referred to the “further development of civil society”.

If we do away with all government interference in commerce then the market (civil society) will replace public libraries with companies and institutions that are more efficient and more effective.

Post 18

Tuesday, December 3, 2002 - 8:16amSanction this postReply
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Barry,

I wouldn’t say that the major premise is very weak, although it’s obviously open to debate. As to your reasons for the lack of commercial activity in book lending, I don’t find them very persuasive.

After all, private libraries are an established historical feature; as far as I am aware, there are no regulations forbidding the private lending of books; and as I pointed out previously, since the good is available elsewhere, the crowding out thesis is also less than persuasive.

Barry wrote: “…even if …private book lending is unlikely to be economically viable -- it doesn’t follow that privately owned libraries -- freely open to the public -- would not exist without support from the state…After all many great libraries -- throughout history and today -- were founded and funded privately yet open to public use.”

Brendan replies: “Barry, you’ve conflated several issues. Certainly, as in your examples from antiquity, great and wealthy men and institutions in the past have created private libraries. But access has invariably been limited -- to other men of similar social status, promising young scholars and the like. This is not what we nowadays mean by public access. Again, it’s a matter of comparing apples with apples.

Second, you give examples of modern great libraries. Either these attract at least some government funding, or they do not. If the former, they are not examples of fully private institutions and undercut your case for such private institutions. If the latter, you have undercut your contention that state funding crowds out private libraries.

Barry, I think the difference between our ways of thinking is that you believe that if the state were to withdraw from various economic and social activities, the private sector would fill the gap and replicate these activities, but do it better.

My view is that since the laissez faire vision is such a radical departure from anything human beings have experienced, either today or in history, the outcome would also be radically uncertain.

Post 19

Tuesday, December 3, 2002 - 11:14amSanction this postReply
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Brendan,

It's been a pleasure to discuss these issues with you in an agreeable manner.

Some of the reasons I am less uncertain about the social impact of laissez-faire include the following:

1) History. Before the rise of the welfare state in the 20th century, welfare was efficiently provided by a diverse range of organisations within civil society that developed out of the direct needs of specific communities. These organisations were crowded out by centrally-planned welfare systems that proved far less efficient (and, instead, socially damaging). If the state withdraws there's no reason to think civil society organisations would not return to fill the gaps. (See Libertarianism: A Primer by David Boaz.)

2) Economics. Where state-owned and centrally-planned industries have been privatised (and not subsequently encumbered with draconian regulations) the industries have thrived and consumers have benefited.

3) Individual rights. Wherever governments interfere to correct "market failure" they do more damage than good. The end is rotten because the means -- violating individual rights -- is rotten. By limiting governments to just and principled methods of functioning -- and likewise companies and organisations -- the outcome may not reflect the conventional ideal of a world without poverty, but at least it will be close to the best scenario given the circumstances (capital formation, population density, cultural development, etc.).

Anyway, I guess you've given some thought to these issues but have not found sufficient evidence to diminish your uncertainty about laissez-faire.

I agree. It is a radical departure. So, given that it comes down to the level of evidence we've found -- and found convincing -- I think we can agree to disagree.

Cheers
Barry

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