Cato: Libraries Bigger Threat to Freedom than Banned Books

Neal McCluskey, the associate director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, believes that the 30th anniversary of Banned Book Week is an excellent opportunity to evaluate how government control, even when it is benign, could prove to be a force for curtailing freedom rather than preserving it.

As librarians around the world talk about the pointlessness and destructiveness of playing gatekeeper to literature, it behooves us to remember that they themselves serve as gatekeepers of a sort by using their power to select the books that make it onto the library shelves to shape how we think and what we learn.

It seems hypocritical to try to take away the power of community members to decide which books are suitable and which are not while reserving this power for libraries, schools and other government entities. Even the choices made for the best of reasons and with a goal of expanding access to knowledge can still serve to influence the opinions and perceptions of a large percentage of individuals — even more so because few realize to what extent their views are shaped by the choices made for them.

Allowing the government to act as an arbiter of taste in this way also disenfranchises people who disagree with these views. Since library books are purchased with tax dollars, taxpayers who hold different opinions are put in a position to fund speech they do not support.

Ironically, one of the main reasons public schools and libraries exist – at least to hear their advocates explain it – is to advance “democracy,” a rhetorically powerful term generally used to imply some sort of egalitarian, unified society. But the effect of having government buy books – much less require children to read and report on them – is to divide diverse people, not bring them together. It forces them into war with each other, to see who can gather the most political clout and have their values advanced by the government for which they all must pay.

It is true that words like “democracy” and “freedom” have often been co-opted to describe systems that are anything but democratic or free. Yet, shouldn’t the hundreds of protests lodged against books – which are meticulously logged by the American Library Association, the organization which originated and sponsors Banned Book Week – be considered an expression of that freedom rather than an attempt to stifle it?

The solution is to take government out of the equation entirely, says McCluskey. Charter school libraries are stocked by educators themselves rather than via government mandate. And that is just the way it should be, he says. It only remains to offer the same kind of freedom to librarians by stopping government funding for libraries.

For libraries, the answer is to move away from public control and toward civil society: people freely choosing to support libraries that lend at no cost to patrons and are open to the public.

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