Where There’s a Will There’s a Won’t: A COVID-Related Tale of Bureaucracy

A tax-funded county library system, upon which I rely for research materials and Internet access, closed abruptly last March in response to developing COVID concerns. Its shutdown was announced a day after a managing branch librarian assured patrons that the system was scheduled to remain open. The system’s brain trust had decided instead that its services were “non-essential,” and so warranted immediate closure. By contrast, the state-run system of liquor stores determined its own services to be “essential,” and so remained open, with masks and social distancing initially left to customers’ discretion.

Library branches remained closed to the public, albeit staffed, for more than two months. Anxious patrons subsequently were permitted to request books online, for contact-free outdoor pickup. Four months after the initial closure, patrons were permitted controlled access inside branch facilities: masks were required; total occupancy was restricted; individual stays were limited to thirty minutes per day; the number of Internet terminals was reduced from twenty to five to accommodate social distancing; and Internet access was limited electronically to thirty minutes per patron per day. Rationing restrictions—nominally reasonable adjuncts of occupancy and distancing restrictions—astonishingly were enforced regardless of actual demand conditions.

The library system’s eventual reopening occurred as suddenly as its closure. A friend living out-of-state alerted me to a reopening announcement posted on the County’s website. The first morning back, and for several consecutive mornings thereafter, I was the only patron in the branch. Rationing strategies that clearly were unnecessary nevertheless were fully enforced. The fatuous reason given for limiting access time under actual conditions of superabundance was that the risk of contracting a viral infection was supposed to increase after thirty minutes—a patently inapposite conjecture that had been floated nationally to allay the fears of individuals who simultaneously were being cautioned to avoid exposure to groups, yet needed to shop for essentials. Accordingly, the logical palliative alternatives of shifting to another Internet terminal, or else returning later in the day to continue working, were precluded by rule. The librarian was not authorized to respond to actual circumstances, necessity, or reason (the potential effectiveness of a generously persuasive side payment was not explored). I departed the empty branch after thirty minutes, condemned to labor daily under similar conditions and rules.

Commercial enterprises eagerly began squeezing value out of long-idled private assets as the state-mandated COVID shutdown progressively was relaxed. Tax-funded county operations, by contrast, were content to deny service to patrons despite the conspicuous idleness of public assets under their jurisdiction. Rather than discovering ways to serve patrons who deemed library services “essential,” the librarian’s formal responsibility simply was to say, “No!”

As politicians and bureaucrats—whose own prosperity and flourishing typically are not jeopardized by their actions—strain to enact top-down, one-size-fits-all policies for equalizing suffering and compassion across the breadth of society, it is worth pausing to consider the waste, inefficiency, lost productivity, and foregone happiness that such policies entail. Experience at a branch library—a mere hangnail of county government—illuminates the reason for frustration and disillusionment with over-weaning government in the aggregate, and the growing contempt that Americans have for it.

James A. Montanye is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute.
Posts by James A. Montanye | Full Biography and Publications
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