There was a fascinating story on NPR the other morning about the invaluable role public libraries played as shelters and centers for community support in the wake of natural disasters such as Hurricane Sandy. While I could just snark about austerity and move on, I think this actually says something more potent about the nature of the libertarian/progressive divide.

A common rejoinder of conservatives and libertarians to the progressive desire to meet social needs through state action is that private charity would meet that need and is in fact being crowded out by state programs. Allow me to quote at length from a recent episode of EconTalk in which host Russ Roberts and guest Michael Lind go back and forth on the subject:

Russ: I want to go back to one last thing on this issue of this transition to a larger government. You mentioned that after the Great Depression, somewhere in the New Deal perhaps, we had to go to government provision of social welfare services because charities weren’t doing the job. Actually, charities were quite active during the Depression of 1895. They were quite active in the Great Depression. They disappeared when government got much larger. You are correct, as you point out in your article, or in one of your articles, that there’s always been public provision of welfare at the state and local level, though. So it’s never been a so-called libertarian provision of aid to the poor. There’s been a lot more private aid to the poor pre-Great Depression. I think it’s important to point out that the death of serious private charities fighting hunger and poverty for large groups of people ended with the New Deal and the rise of Federal spending.

Guest: You are absolutely right. There is no doubt that government social insurance crowded out a lot of charitable activity. And also that Federal social insurance crowded out a lot of state and county and local.

Russ: That’s correct.

Guest: Now, the question is: Is this a bad thing or not?

Russ: That is the question.

Guest: I asked this once of an 84 year old friend of the family, unfortunately no longer with us, who had grown up on a farm in Missouri. And I was discussing Robert Putnam’s study about the decline of civic activity and so on. So I asked him, because he lived all the way back until–was born around WWI–you know: Did he miss all of these organizations like the Elks and the Moose Lodge and all these fraternal civic organizations? And he said exactly what you said. He said, well they all disappeared because of Social Security.

Russ: That’s right.

Guest: He said, because the only reason 90% of us joined them was because they had health insurance. You know, sometimes the Moose Lodge would have a deal with a doctor, who would see all the members of the Immortal Order of Moose. Or the Elks or whatever. So, they provided health insurance, they provided burial insurance, which was very important for people who did not have the cash to provide for funerals. And also they had old age homes. Old folks’ homes. If you were poor then the fraternal order of Elks would have an old folks’ home. So I said, do you miss that world of diverse civic society? And he said, Hell no. So. You know there may be people who have some nostalgia for that, but I think this actually liberates civil society. You may disagree with me, but it seems to me–I’ll give you an example. During the Communist rule in Poland and in Eastern Europe, jazz clubs were often used as covers for democratic political activism. Okay? So the membership of these jazz clubs collapsed once you had democracy in these countries. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Well, I think if you love jazz, then really, if the jazz club, even if it’s smaller, now it’s simply jazz lovers. And likewise, the Masons and the Shriners are much smaller than they were in the past. But if most of the people who join the local Shriner Lodge are really interested in Freemasonry, in other words they are not simply interested in economic benefits, which are now provided by the state, it seems to me that’s an improvement for the Shriners. They don’t have all of these people who were there just to get burial insurance.

Russ: Well, I think the question is if you want to assess what a more libertarian charity system, a more private, voluntary charity system, would look like, I’m not sure you want to look at 1927. It probably would be worse in 1927 than it would be today. We’re a much wealthier nation; we have much better ways of communicating and interacting and sharing ideas. And raising money, for that matter. So, when I think about what private provision of some government services would look like, I think about the Harlem Children’s Zone, which Paul Tough talked about on a podcast here a few months ago, where basically an entrepreneur, Jeffrey Canada, thought the government safety net had done such a miserable job with inner city African-Americans and other poor people that he decided to provide it privately in a different way. And does it better. It’s a lot of work. He doesn’t raise as much money or as easily as Head Start or other government programs, government schools, which use tax revenue. But it’s more effective. It’s more humane. It’s more transformative both for the people who live through it and the people who fund it. So, I think the crucial question is–it’s unanswerable, so we can argue about it until the cows come home–the crucial question is: Is it imaginable that privately collectively provided social services might do better? I think they might. I agree you can’t prove it.

Guest: Well, yeah. I guess the question is: Are there enough benevolent billionaires? Because it is mostly the rich who provide the money for charity. Individuals do some. Ordinary middle class. But it’s mostly the rich. The only time we had any experience of this really was in the United States and maybe in some European countries after the decline of feudalism when you had state religious welfare, tax-funded things and the rise of the modern welfare state. You know, from the late 19th, early 20th centuries. And at least at that time, the great industrialists and bankers did not see fit to provide charity in anything matching even a minimal welfare state for people now. Which is one of the reasons why these countries created a welfare state. If, you know, the British and the German and the American industrialists had had this whole alternate funded model, then I don’t think there would have been much pressure for a modern welfare state.

One thing that’s not discussed in this otherwise-fascinating conversation, though, is the change in settlement patterns that characterized the last century of American life. Before the great Depression, the urban share of the American population was somewhere between 50-55%; by 1950 that number had already increased to 64%, and today it is over 80%.

A key factor in all institutions is trust. In a small enough self-contained settling, like a small town, everyone can effectively know everyone else or at least close enough to everyone else to minimize the need for large-scale intervention by mandatory public institutions. If neighbor Bob is in trouble, the block can get together and see him through, knowing that they’ll be the beneficiary the next time. The local doctor makes house visits and collects a little bit from everybody or gets paid in promises or in-kind, and all the men join the Elk Lodge and pay dues that are effectively an intergenerational transfer. The police are minimal, often volunteers, and are usually there to cool off a few drunken fights and band together against external threats like roving bandits, rather than systematic internal threats.

But when everyone lives in a city, where a single apartment building can have a higher population than that small town, this breaks down. It’s not nearly possible for social bonds to create enough interpersonal trust to allow for voluntary self-governance, and even the basic problems of waste management, utility provision, and transportation exponentially grow in scope and complexity and cost as population increases. Without vigorous policing, thievery is common, and while ethnic or religious other in-group-based aid groups can provide some measure of help, they can’t systematically address hunger or poverty or infirmity or illness.

The recognition that, while urbanization is necessary for the kind of growth that has characterized modern society since the Industrial Revolution, it also brings with it its own unique set of problems and challenges, is a foundational basis of progressive ideologies and movements. There was no agrarian socialism. In The Origins of Political Order, Francis Fukuyama summarizes the difficulty of state formation in Africa:

There are relatively few regions in Africa that are clearly circumscribed by physical geography. This had made it extraordinarily difficult for territorial rulers to push their administration into the hinterland and to control populations. Low population density has meant that new land was usually available; people could respond to the threat of conquest simply by retreating further into the bush. State consolidation based on wars of conquest never took place in Africa to the extent it did in Europe simply because the motives and possibilities for conquest were much more limited. This meant, according to Herbst, that the transition from a tribal to a territorial conception of power with clearly conceived administrative boundaries of the sort that existed in Europe did not take place. The emergence of states in parts of the continent that were circumscribed, like the Nile valley, is an exception fully consistent with the underlying rule.

Not that this is exactly parallel, but it does show how population density is if not determinative is fundamentally influential to what institutions emerge within a polity. This divergent understanding of how to meet needs, privately or publically, still drives the rural/urban divide in voting patterns in the United States today.

Just to finish where I started, forgetting about the extraordinary functions of libraries like in the story above, even the ordinary functions of libraries demonstrate the limit of private action. My wife and I have just purchased a house in DC, and once we relocate we want to establish a Little Free Library. But even a hundred or a thousand Little Free Libraries, while conducive to communality and neighborliness, can only serve as compliments to a public library system rather than substitutes that are crowded out by public investment. The very purposes of a public library – to guarantee universal access to certain information, to preserve learning, to serve as centers for communities – are incongruous with private action, which can build bookstores or little neighborhood bookshares but can’t serve the public need for public information. Similarly, if disaster were to God forbid strike Washington, DC, while I certainly believe many private individuals, myself included, would be willing to shelter friends, neighbors, and others who were without power or water or other necessities; but that would be a complement to the guarantee that a library or emergency shelter in a school gymnasium would offer, not a substitute.