My secret library campaign

Over the past two months I’ve been waging a campaign at Melbourne University’s Baillieu library by requesting that the staff order libertarian books. So far they have kindly consented to purchasing the following books: A Foreign Policy of Freedom, by Ron Paul; The Revolution: A Manifesto, by Ron Paul; and Neither Liberty nor Safety: Fear, Ideology and the Growth of Government, by Robert Higgs.

My library campaign is an attempt to educate Australian academics. I draw inspiration from John Quiggin’s inadvertent confession of ignorance:

Ideological supporters of the free market dislike the idea of public provision and funding of services though they have proved unable to come up with workable alternatives.

When Professor Quiggin says libertarians have “proved unable to come up with workable alternatives”, he basically overlooks the vast libertarian literature. There are literally hundreds of books and journal articles containing workable libertarian ideas on almost every imaginable topic — ranging from the War on Drugs to the War on Terror to the War on Poverty.

Many libertarian ideas on inflation and taxes have been adopted as policy in recent decades. For example the Australian government, during the stagflation of the 1980s, adopted free-market reforms. Was this not an acknowledgment of the efficacy of smaller government?

Yet, for some strange reason, certain myths — like the one that libertarians pull ideas out of thin air and that there’s nothing but dogmatic ideology guiding our policy recommendations — continue to persist. I urge readers to fight ignorance through asking their local libraries to buy books by Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek and other libertarian authors.

28 thoughts on “My secret library campaign

  1. Getting public libraries to order libertarian books seems to me to be a useful expenditure of public funds. 😉

  2. I’ve been doing the same thing at the UC library. They purchase most of what I suggest.

  3. Sukrit,
    What is the basis for a local library to get in an stock a book one requests.
    Are they obliged to do it? Are there any criteria that first must be reached?
    Do they also do it for magazines eg. Reason?

  4. good idea and good work. but will have a minimal impact. how many people read books these days?

  5. To be clear, I didn’t mean to suggest that libertarians and other free market supporters are bereft of policy ideas. I’m a keen supporter of congestion taxes and HECS, both of which can be traced in large measure to Milton Friedman. And the same is true in broad terms of carbon taxes/emissions trading.

    My point is rather, as the post makes clear, that these ideas, taken as a whole, don’t produce a case for a radical reduction in the size of government. Australian experience, which you cite, makes this clear.

    And of course, the fact that you’re urging the use of voice to influence the choices of public libraries illustrates the point pretty well.

  6. Whatever Quiggs. This is a novelty post on Sukrits hobby (which sounds fun). You’re drawing a long bow claiming this is a contradiction. 99% of the population doesn’t care what’s in public libraries which would appear to me to put up a reasonable case why they shouldn’t be a public service, especially in the age of the internet. Uni libraries may be a different matter, but they’re funded under a different scheme and rationale.

    As I keep saying, and no one will believe me, left-wingers even with decent libertarian tendencies can not get over big government! They’re useless!

  7. John,

    If people know about the libertarian alternatives why does nobody except the CIS & IPA talk about them?

    Why is it that when I open up the Australian Journal of Political Science there’s no raging debate over vouchers, medical savings accounts, the negative income tax, etc.?

    The only debate seems to be in the form of one-liners inserted into opinion pieces (e.g. like yours). You say it has been “proved” that the alternatives don’t work. Proved by which Australian academic?

    If the case for smaller government is so weak, where is the line-by-line critique of the best libertarian literature in the mainstream journals?

    I think the failure of Australian policymakers to make explicit their criticisms with reference to the libertarian literature is due to ignorance… hence the point of this post about educating more people through books.

  8. this whole exercise seems wholly ironic, if not, hypocritical. It might be more consistent to request private book stores stock libertarian titles, though I imagine they make their stocking decisions on actual sales figuires. The politics section at Borders is dominated by the left – cultural criticisms of America, unfettered capitalism, global poverty caused by free trade and globalisation… What’s wrong with libertarians and left critics? Don’t they buy books? What makes socialists make Michael Moore, Naomi Klein and John Pilger into bestsellers? Although Atlas Shrugged has been given quite prominent placement at my local Borders in the recommended section.

  9. There’s nothing inconsistent about making full use of the free money being thrown around by government, while simultaneously calling for smaller government. As private citizens, libertarians would be fools not to take advantage of it – after all, it’s their money.

    But I think it’s different if you’re an institution (e.g. CIS, which doesn’t take govt. money) or a politician (e.g. Ron Paul who rejects Congressional perks), but that’s just for the sake of showing independence and avoiding unnecessary controversy from people who judge work based on who it’s funded by, rather than on its merits.

    Why should libertarians leave all the research grants to big government types? They already get millions of dollars in subsidies… it’s unnecessary to cripple ourselves further by saying we can’t use public funds to order libertarian books!

  10. I’m not accusing JH of hypocrisy, merely making the point that, as he recognises, public libraries are useful institutions, and that the political process of lobbying them to include material of interest is a reasonable way of meeting a social need. If you want a radical reduction in government you need to propose an alternative, not merely wave your hands in the manner of Mick Sutcliffe at #7.

    On #8, part of the problem is that these ideas have been debated to death. They have had some influence on public policies – for example, there is extensive public support for private schools which captures much of the effect of a voucher scheme. Of course, neither state aid nor vouchers reduces the size of the state in expenditure terms.

    In other cases, like Negative Income Tax, the idea sounds neat (and attracted plenty of left support in its day), but runs into some pretty big practical problems. Considered as a replacement for unemployment benefits, for example, it amounts to abandoning the work test, which society has proved very reluctant to do.

  11. “free money”
    “after all, it’s their money”
    Aren’t libertarians the first ones to jump on these phrases?
    Government spending is not free money, there is always a cost to someone else.
    “public money” = “our money”?
    Is it my money if I don’t read books or go to the library?
    I shouldn’t have to make these basic arguments on a libertarian forum.

    Don’t take this as an attack, I really don’t think it’s a big deal at all and I don’t want to come off as sounding pedantic.

    But if I have to be objective here, no doubt we would all jump to ridicule some kind of similar double standard by socialists/collectivists. Indeed, I’d say some kind of left wing forum could justifiably make fun of this blog entry in discrediting the merits of libertarianism.

  12. Mark Hill – no, I would imagine the consistent libertarian (who also believes in democratic ideals to acheive liberty) would answer the survey, asking for council revenues to be returned to residents as rate cuts or rebates and significant spending cuts.

  13. public libraries are useful institutions, and that the political process of lobbying them to include material of interest is a reasonable way of meeting a social need.

    I don’t see the social need. I used to hang out in the public library a lot when I was young because I had no money and I lived in a small country town (I used to walk 11km to go to the library until I got a bike). I’m not saying no one uses them, but it’s only a very small part of the population. I knew where to purchase the information I wanted, but I couldn’t afford it even though it wasn’t expensive. The library did come close to providing a lot of what I wanted, but if money was going to be spent on my welfare it would have been better off just being given to me to spend on my specific interests and projects, pretty much regardless of how small the quantity might have been eg. a magazine or newspaper subscription. I ended up doing community service in that library for the Duke of Edinburgh scheme, and I think most people who used it would be in that situation I described above. Potentially I would say the biggest contribution would be helping young kids from less educated families with their school projects. That was beneficial, but they also had a school library. In the age of the internet there is no reason for public information services like a community library. It’s simply not an effective use of resources and it’s contribution is simply making people feel good, even though they never need to go in.

    The real reason people like you support public amenities like libraries is because you believe its the government spending people’s money on what’s good for them, rather than them spending it themselves – somehow to make people better and more virtuous than they are by themselves.

  14. “In the Age of the Internet…”
    Words fail me, so I’ll use letters instead.
    I go to my local library, in Sutherland, AND I also use the Internet. I like to browse, AND I can, and do, meet real people there!
    In fact, I have come across more good authors through random browsing than the Internet has shown me.
    We seem to have different styles, Mick. That implies that Libraries will also cater to lots of people, who just have different reading habits to you.
    And I notice that ordinary bookshops, like Abbeys, and Dymocks, still sell paper-and-ink books! Ordinary books and magazines are NOT on the way out, but they do have competition.
    This makes me wonder if a specialist Libertarian Library would be a good meeting place for like-minded souls? The anarchists have their Jura Bookshop, but where can decentralists go?

  15. Seems likem John Q is arguing the Government can’t get any more efficient for the level of services it provides.

    That simply begs the question, should the Government be doing it at all?

  16. Winston,

    Of course tax cuts are ideal. And obviously nothing is “free”.

    But that’s no reason for an individual libertarian to reject government money. Should I give up using Medicare too? Should libertarian parents pull their kids out of public schools? And so on.

    Nobody expects that kind of sacrifice. It’s not like the government will allow you to pay less tax if you consume less services – they’ll charge the same tax no matter what. There’s no opt-in or opt-out, so it’s unreasonable to expect libertarians to sacrifice everything, which basically means the statists (i.e. the rest of population) get to keep more of the loot for themselves.

    As Larry Flint (the famous pornographer) once said, “Why do I have to go to jail to defend your freedom [of speech]?”

    Likewise, why do I have to give up services just to make the point that we could be paying for these things ourselves, without the government interfering? I’m not wealthy enough to be doing that.

  17. We seem to have different styles, Mick. That implies that Libraries will also cater to lots of people, who just have different reading habits to you.

    Cool, NIc, you and these people can pay for the service yourself, through some sort of voluntary subscription. You might be able to find ‘lots of people’ in the library. I reckon I can find 90% of the population who hasn’t gone to the local library in 10 years. Its probably more than 95%. If these figures are any way representative of reality, which way do you think we should go with regards to use of public funding?

    Also, reality check. Libraries are an inefficient and expensive way of storing information. They’re very nice and I like them, but smart public policy probably wouldn’t use libraries. It would look for a better way to bring information to people. I’m not an expert, but I’d bet that some sort of online means would be best. Public libraries continue to exist because they are perceived as a public good. If the government must spend this ‘public money’ then spend it n cancer research, or hospitals, or anything that really does attempt to provide something a vast majority of the population use or value. Be better just to leave in people’s pockets though.

    If you want the pleasure of the printed word go to one of those big bookshops that sell coffee and you can sit down and talk. (There’s an excellent article on various ones around the world in todays AFR magazine).

    My preferred lark is the private clubs scene. Costs me $300 year which works out as good value. Go along to one of their special interests groups on politics. You have the works! Discussion with smart people (usually of your preferred political persuasion and often academics or prominent people are present) in a leather chesterfield in a beautiful sandstone building over a glass of red and coffee. It rocks. If I can get all that for $300/year I’m sure our lefty friends could do better hanging out to beat poetry at Jura Books and sharing a joint! That’s a cheap night out. And none of this requires taxation and it all does the same functions as a public library, but better!

  18. JQ – I can live with large government so long as the real dollar cost per capita is frozen for a few decades. No shrinkage required in that case, just discipline and some budgeting. We don’t need governments to spend less, we just need them to stop spending more.

  19. I watch a couple of shows on the ABC and SBS. Does that make me a hypocrite if I would rather them not be publicly funded? Of course not. For the same reason that asking your library to stock books is not hypocritical. It’s our money so we may as well have some sort of say in how it is spent.

    Arguing that using taxpayer services if you are a taxpayer who happens to think that tax money could be better spent elsewhere (or not have been collected in the first place) is frankly a little confounding.

  20. There is a Libertarian book store here in Riverside that acts as the central hub for the Riverside County Libertarian Party. A great place to find almost endless supply of material based around just about any context for any level of scholar. Every time I go there I see something new I want and typically meet someone new.

  21. I think the campaign itself is valuable – but the choice? Ron Paul? Why not go through the Liberty Fund catalogue and order books out of that? Indeed, the library may already have The Collected Works of James M Buchanan, Gordon Tullock, Arthur Sheldon, Armian Alchian, etc. but check up on that. Get the to order the Liberty Funds new printings of Mises’ stuff.

    Also subscribe to their catalogue.

  22. Yeah, please check out Mises and the standard neoclassical economics with the marginalist foundations before looking at the far reaching but flawed economics authors like Rothbard.

  23. There are enough economics books at Melbourne Uni’s library. They already have Friedman, Rothbard, Mises, Hayek, etc. I’m asking them to order the books I find most interesting.

    Ron Paul’s book is a collection of his speeches over 30 years. It basically follows a similar pattern. First – Paul warns against a particular instance of foreign interevntion and accurately predicts what will happen. Then, policymakers ignore him and do it anyway. Then, he is proved right. Then they have to withdraw in shame. And then the pattern continues (it remains to be seen if it will continue in relation to Iran).

  24. I wonder if Melbourne Uni is special? Most other libraries seem to be hotbeds of bolshyism!
    And a library can still be a great place to meet real people. Or a liberty-themed bookshop. Do we have such a one in Sydney?

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