People in government, and generally “on the left,” often tell us of the primary importance of giving. All sorts of things should simply be “supplied” to us, free of charge. Free education, free roads, free lunches. All of this “free stuff” is illusory, of course: it comes at high cost. To somebody, anyway, perhaps to everybody. William Graham Sumner referred to the somebody who most obviously pays for all this free stuff — the hard-working taxpayer — as “the forgotten man.” But what is forgotten when we focus on Sumner’s forgotten man in the statist “free goods” equation, is the recipient.

Or, I should say, recipients. They, too, become corrupted by merely receiving — and then expecting and demanding — the free good. That corruption may be the saddest part of the tale, and may offer the best reason to put a leash on the ideology of “free stuff.”

You need look no further than your public library for examples of today’s “free stuff” corruption. Indeed, look no further than the fascinating blog “I work at a public library“:

A man approached the desk to ask very aggressively why there was a fee on his library account. When I tried to explain, he got angrier and angrier. From the corner of my eyes, I could see my co-workers and some customers ready for the rescue. After several minutes of shouting from his side I finally succeeded in calming him down and he paid the fee.

Ten minutes later he came back to check out a book: Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends & Influence People.

I’m sure librarians look at this man as yet another example of why the service they do is so important, in that it shows the common run of humanity to be deeply low and vulgar and foolish, always in need of enlightenment, which can be found (ahem) in the books that they just happen to provide.

And I don’t want to discourage this view. Nevertheless, I see the above tale as an example of a man reacting (or overreacting) to standard library policy. Though the service librarians offer may indeed be (or: may once have been) an important civilizing influence, some of the ways they go about their business encourages just such loutishness.

How so?

The man was complaining about “fees” on his library account. Well, he had simply imbibed this idea that public libraries offer “free” goods — that is, books — and wondered why he had to pay. It’s galling to have to pay when you’ve been told it’s “free.”

And though the author of the blog post did not explain the origin of the fees, any library patron knows how most such fees arise: from overdue charges, usually referred to as “fines.”

The implication of references to “overdue charges” and “fines” is that, by keeping a book a few days or weeks longer than some specified period, you have done something wrong. And people tend to get a bit testy when told they are in error, somehow a drain on the body politic.

And all for keeping Boswell’s Life of Johnson a few extra days! You know, most likely because it’s a long book, and you really did want to read it (and maybe you are, also, kicking yourself for having watched, during the period set to read the book, Season Two of Game of Thrones instead).

The man was obviously in need of spiritual advice, after his altercation with the librarian, and he may have chosen his next book well.

Though I would have suggested reading Seneca.

To the librarians, though, I offer meatier advice. Stop this talk of books being “overdue” and “fines” being imposed. You want to loan books. So rent them. That establishes that they have value. People should pay for what they get.

But, but . . . you sputter? You say you want to offer them for free?

Then waive rental charges for the first day or week or two of the loan period. You can still provide a “free service.” But only for a limited time. After that time, the rents kick in. And this would be up front. The “free period” might be seen as a loss leader. And no one needs to get grumpy when they pay their “fees,” because the paltry amount would be paying for a service freely entered into, and acknowledged as a valid exchange by both parties.

Heck, if you decide to keep the book, you could pay an advertised amount, and get a receipt to put in the book’s rental pocket, and everyone will be happy.

In such a world, libraries would become less like “charities” or “government bureaus,” and more like businesses.

Which, I grant you, still have grumpy customers. But, perhaps, fewer idiotically grumpy ones.

Oh, and by the way, the first big libraries in America were rental libraries. The whole “free libraries” craze came from rich men trying to find a way to spend their enormous fortunes. They thought giving it away in the form of books was a good idea. And maybe it was. For them. But the recipients, over time, became corrupted by the expectation of “free stuff,” and began to demand more and more, and meanwhile the cost of maintaining the free libraries was placed onto communities with tax bases, and the politics of interest group alignment flowered. And we’re all wondering why our “fees” have gone up.

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