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Libraries, and a Few Other Things

Read a delightful story last week about Pat Schroeder and the efforts of a coalition of publishers to do away with institutions such as interlibrary loan—and libraries themselves, while they're at it—on the premise that if a library buys one copy of an expensive journal and then loans an article to someone else, the publisher is out a sale. That is, in the manner of so very many media companies these days, they consider interlibrary loan a form of robbery.

And this, I decided when I had thought about it some more, is a perfect example of why our civilization is going to die. Not because people don't go bowling together, or whatever that guy wrote his book around, and not because we don't give to charity, because we do, but because we have become individualists to such a degree that we refuse to recognize responsibilities accruing from any non-voluntary association.

I used to have this argument all the time with a libertarian I talked with online. When I read the library story, I realized that his attitude was more wide-spread than I had realized, that it explains a lot of what we see coming at us from the corporate world these days. The idea is that "society" is the people I choose to associate with, the charity I choose to give money to, maybe the family I was born into (assuming that I choose to speak to them), and that beyond that I have no responsibilities to anyone.

Looked at from this perspective, the whole idea of public institutions dries up and blows away. The whole point of "the public" is that it includes everyone, even people you don't know and perhaps don't like. If you're not willing to do something in the knowledge that it benefits everyone, purely because it does not directly benefit you, then we, as a society, have a huge problem. Because despite what these people like to think, our actions do have a broader effect than our small circle of chosen interactions, and the job of public institutions is to cement and reinforce the best of those effects.

The other half of the problem is the nature of the corporation. This is something I've been musing about for a while now, and still don't have fully articulated, so bear with me. A corporation is an abstract legal entity intended to spread financial risk across a number of investors, protecting all of them, in theory, from losing their shirts if things don't go well. This is a very useful abstraction, as we can see from the continued popularity of the idea in these early days of the 21 Century.

The problem is that we've carried this abstraction a step too far. A corporation is responsible to its shareholders, not to society at large. This is supposed to mean that they're careful in what they do with their investors' money. What it has also come to mean is that we accept behavior from corporations that, if exhibited by individual people, would result in those people being looked upon with disgust by their fellow human beings. Any sort of hideous action that stops short of being illegal is considered acceptable, regardless of its moral position.

Combine this vision of the employees of a corporation as being detached from any sort of normal morality as long as they can be considered to be acting in the corporation's interests, with the attitude that even as private individuals we have responsibilities only toward those people we personally like, and the door is opened for whole new realms of corporate irresponsibility. This movement by book publishers to completely ignore the public good of libraries in favor of reinterpreting copyright law so as to ensure that no stone goes unsqueezed in their quest for profits, is only a beginning step.

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© 2000 Rebecca J. Stevenson