Should libraries fine patrons who fail to return books, CDs and movies on time?
Does it surprise you that the Wake County library system and our county Board of Commissioners say they should not? On Jan. 2 the government stopped charging late fees for overdue items and erased the past charges owed by nearly 300,000 people. Patrons will still have to cover lost items and anyone who has at least three things deemed “long overdue” – more than nine weeks late – will have their borrowing privileges suspended until they make good.
Wake County’s move reflects several broader trends that deserve wider discussion. On one level, it is part of a growing movement to shelve late fees. Libraries in Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and St. Louis are some of the larger systems that have recently abandoned the age-old practice. Although most of them charged less than a quarter a day in late fees and many capped fines at just a few dollars, they argued that the fines often deterred poor people from taking advantage of their services.
Taking a step back, this move reflects a growing awareness that many of the fines and fees assessed by governments, banks and other institutions can be a crushing stone around the necks of too many Americans.
Still, such efforts can be taken too far. The ideology informing some critics of today’s flawed system casts all fines and fees as tools used to oppress the poor, especially people of color. This mindset dismisses personal responsibility for the situation – the individual’s failure to obey traffic laws or to return a book when it is due – blaming the rules, rather than the rule-breakers. To take a boundary-pushing example of this, San Francisco and New York have decriminalized a host of behaviors including public urination because they say they unfairly target the homeless.
This is disgusting. And, I fear, it is the future.
Perhaps cities should have more public toilets. But they should not excuse gross misbehavior. It is a sign of the times that I probably need to state the obvious: Civil society hinges on decency. We don’t engage in certain activities out of respect for one another and ourselves.
The current push to not just reconsider potentially unfair rules but to abandon common sense constraints on personal behavior is not a sign of compassion but surrender. It allows our leaders to ignore tough problems, instead of addressing them.
Eliminating library fines is only a small and relatively innocuous part of this push. On its own, it won’t harm society and may even encourage some people to read.
But we should ask ourselves about the larger message this sends. While suggesting the false view that people who have the wherewithal to borrow books don’t have the time to return them, it strikes another blow against time-honored expectations of personal responsibility. It also weakens the idea of community – the obligation we incur when using shared public resources. I can’t read the book you won’t return.
Is that fair? Is that good for society?