Politics & Policy

By the Book

Beware government bureaucrats bearing regulations. (File photo: Dreamstime)
The unhappy case of the little free library

Funny how words change over time: “To be attached to the subdivision,” Edmund Burke wrote in Reflections on the Revolution in France, “to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.” The phrase “little platoon” remains current among conservatives, who are mindful that the small, local, voluntary associations of civil society — and not Leviathan — are the real building blocks of our common life. But “subdivision” now means something entirely different, calling to mind the petty dictatorships of local zoning boards and the like. Nine-year-old Spencer Collins of Leawood, Kan., was trying to make his contribution to his little platoon when he ran up against the ham-fisted tyranny of the subdivision.

There is a charming phenomenon known as the “little free library,” in which private citizens, very often children, build modest little birdhouse-like structures, fill them with books, and offer them to their neighbors on a take-a-book/leave-a-book honor system. The practice is popular in the Kansas City suburbs where the Collinses reside, but they have been built from coast to coast. The business of America being business, there are even entrepreneurs who build ready-made little free libraries for those insufficiently handy or not inclined to build their own. Children engaging their communities in a generous, civic-minded activity dedicated to books: You could hardly improve on that.

Unless you are the local zoning board. And then you might have some ideas.

The Collinses were threatened with fines by their local board of governing yahoos because Spencer’s little free library appears, under the beady-eyed gaze of the suburban town fathers, to be an unauthorized structure, an unbearable standing violation of a local ordinance. The little free library has momentarily retreated to the family garage, though Spencer plans to address the town council about the matter. The municipal governing geniuses suggested that little-free-library proprietors approach the local public library about hosting their structures, inspiring Spencer’s father, Brian, to ask the very reasonable question of why exactly you’d want to put little free libraries on the grounds of the library itself. The entire point of the exercise is to bring books into the neighborhood in an informal way. The coals-to-Newcastle suggestion to move the little free libraries to the big expensive library (spending up 22.8 percent in fiscal 2014) is as good an example of the gravel-pounding buffoonery of government as you could hope to discover without a trip to Cleveland.

Kansas City is blessed with a wonderful public library (I very much enjoyed being part of its speaker series earlier this year), and I am sure that its suburbs also have respectable libraries of their own. I also remember the difficulties of being nine years old in a car-oriented city, with the nearest local library branches being 3.2 and 4.7 miles away. The state of Texas is fairly picky about letting nine-year-olds drive, and my parents were entirely unsupportive of my proposal to set up housekeeping on my own in an apartment downtown near the library and the university — I was, in theory, forbidden from crossing streets with more than two lanes, though I suppose at this point I can admit that I ignored that rule — and so summers were a kind of exile. A little free library or three might have been an excellent thing.

We conservatives are great enthusiasts for the devolution of government powers, the subsidiarity that so moved Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote that such an arrangement has “not only an administrative value, but also a civic dimension, since it increases the opportunities for citizens to take interest in public affairs; it makes them get accustomed to using freedom. And from the accumulation of these local, active, persnickety freedoms, is born the most efficient counterweight against the claims of the central government, even if it were supported by an impersonal, collective will.” But the fact is that local governments, or even pseudo-governmental agencies such as homeowners’ associations, can be as tyrannical as any of the sundry fiends that staff the IRS.

So if you happen to have a little free library standing in Leawood, Kan., you might want to drop in a few extra copies of Democracy in America.

We pay a great deal of attention to the composition of our laws — the occasional gazillion-dollar national health-care bill notwithstanding — but no amount of care in the revision of legal language will ever substitute for prudence, wisdom, and discretion, our shocking public deficits in which transcend mere partisan and ideological affiliation. From the suburbs to the capital, we are governed by fools.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.

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