Freedom of access - Donald Rooum

Donald Rooum looks at several case studies to demonstrate how communist, or moneyless distribution of goods or services, can function effectively.

THE GREATEST OBSTACLE TO ANARCHISM is the Doctrine of Original Sin.

These days, of course, it is not known by that name, or indeed by any name. It has degenerated into a bit of the amorphous body of nonsense which any fool knows is true, the conviction that most if not all individuals are inherently anti-social. To say from a public platform that everyone should have free access to the means of enjoying life is to provoke snickers of derision; most ordinary people seem to think most ordinary people, given free access to anything worth having, would waste it or destroy it.

I propose to show that where ordinary people do have free access to anything, they are reasonably responsible towards it.

A word of disclaimer is necessary before we come to the examples. Peter Kropotkin wrote an enthusiastic account of the open-access system in public libraries and has since been accused, mistakenly I think, of believing the spread of knowledge meant the advent of anarchy. I am about to write enthusiastically of open access and other examples of free access in practice, but let it be clear that I do not think for one moment that any of them are examples of incipient anarchy or bring anarchy any nearer. They are important because they prove that ordinary people have enough good sense to cope with a free access situation.

Public Libraries: the Open-Access System

(In library jargon "free access" means absence of censorships which is not what we are discussing).
"Open-access" means the practice of letting people wander among the bookshelves, handling books at will as they decide which, if any, to read or borrow. It is used today in all British public libraries, and most public libraries in the United States, Canada; Sweden and Denmark. Unesco advocates its use in countries now acquiring libraries for the first time, and it is so obviously the simplest way of making books available that we who are used to it tend to think of it as universal. But it is not used in most of Europe. And a mere fifty years ago its introduction in British libraries was hotly resisted, on the grounds that it was positively immoral to expose respectable citizens to such temptation.

''Closed" libraries, which were once universal and are still "ordinary" in most parts of the world, work on catalogues. The book stacks are accessible only to the staff, who communicate with the public across a counter which is often railed, like the counter of a bank or post-office. The user finds the book he wants in the catalogue, fills in a form giving details of the book and himself, and hands the form to an assistant. If the book is in (the most frequently requested books are, of course, most frequently out), the assistant hands it over and copies the form into one or more ledgers.

The change to open-access began in the United States. Pawtucket (R.I.) Free Library had open shelves as early as 1879, and the first really big library to introduce open-access was probably Cleveland (Ohio) in 1890.

In Britain there was an interesting intermediate stage when libraries remained closed but readers could tell which books were in from "indicators", glazed frames with some way of indicating "in" and "out" for each individual book. In the most popular Cotgreave indicator, for instance, each book was represented by a tiny ledger (3 inches by 1 inch) with the book number in different colours at each end; if the book were in the blue end would face the public, if out the red end would show.

At the Belfast Library Conference of 1894 James Duff Brown, the librarian of Clerkenwell (now Finsbury Central), London, read a paper on open access ("Liberty for readers to help themselves") and modestly announced to the assembled librarians that he had introduced the system at his own library earlier the same year. Somewhat to his surprise, the fur flew. Brown suddenly discovered that he was "a crank, with a very disturbing capacity for foisting his cranks on the public", "an anarchist ... in his cave of library chaos at Clerkenwell", and a villain who chose to ignore the well-known fact "that to give the public opportunity for undetected theft is to demoralize it," standing almost alone against the righteous hysteria of his fellows.

Open-access was a controversial issue in America too, but the moral indignation was never so intense there. Perhaps this was because indicators had never found favour there; librarians with financial interests in indicators shrieked loudest among the anti-Brown mob in Britain, and as open-access spread at least one indicator firm went bankrupt. Moral opposition soon collapsed in the face of public honesty; by 1914 nearly 200 British libraries had adopted open-access and most of the rest were waiting for suitable premises or equipment. Cotgreave indicators were sold second-hand to brewers, who used them for recording the whereabouts of barrels.

Actual statistics of thefts from libraries are never quite reliable. It is too easy for a librarian whose civic or professional pride is shaken to report stolen books as "discarded" or "withdrawn". But a comparative study of reported stealing was made in 1908, when open-access was still arguable but many libraries had adopted it. In cities between 100,000 and 300,000 inhabitants (the lightest-fingered group of communities) open-access libraries had lost between 8 and 42 volumes in every 10,000; closed libraries in the same group had lost between point-2 and 53 volumes in every 10,000. Thus the highest proportional loss by stealing was from a closed library. Open-access libraries as a whole lost more than closed libraries; but then, open-access libraries had at least 50 per cent more users.

Library "thieves" have been classified into four groups: 1. Persons hoping to sell the books, who are deterred by indelible markings. 2. Kleptomaniacs, a small group who may be deterred (not very effectively) by cloakrooms for depositing bags. 3. Absent-minded nits who forget to report to the desk; practically unknown in Britain where one must pass through a wicket on the way out of a library, and effectively deterred in America (where libraries open directly into the street) by awkward narrow doors and projecting notices at head-bumping level. 4. "Nefarious borrowers" who wish to borrow more than the permitted number of books or break some similar rule; these, the largest category of "thieves", are deterred by making library rules more permissive.

There are still thefts. But other things being equal the users of open-access libraries seem to be honester, if anything, than the users of closed libraries.

The National Health Service

The National Health Service happened to be launched on the same day as an arrant swindle called the National Insurance Scheme, and it superseded a contributory scheme called National Health Insurance. Consequently there has always been a certain confusion about its finances, and many people still believe they pay for the National Health Service by way of their National Insurance levy. In fact, of course, it is paid for out of ordinary taxes, like the Army and the prisons; there is no such thing as a special NHS contribution.

When NHS was launched, everyone in the country became entitled to: hospital and specialist services; domiciliary services like midwives and district nurses; and general medical, dental, pharmaceutical and ophthalmic services, without direct payment. Charges were soon introduced in respect of dental, pharmaceutical and ophthalmic services, but the reasons for these charges were given as pressure on the Exchequer, and abuses by practitioners paid on piecework and through trading profits; it was not suggested that patients were wasting the Service. The services of general practitioners are still free to all comers, and the only qualification for hospital, specialist or domiciliary nursing treatment is medical opinion that the patient needs it.

Before NHS was introduced there were all kinds of prophecies of disaster, and during the first year of its operation consumption of glasses, false teeth and drugs did indeed rocket. According to Aneurin Bevan, the pessimists then said "We told you so. The people cannot be trusted to use the service prudently or intelligently. It is bad now but there is worse to come. Abuse will pile on abuse until the whole scheme collapses."

But most of the early demand was the result of past neglect. When the backlog of sickness due to poverty was cleared the cost of the Service settled down to a reasonable eight pounds per head per annum. Most of this sum had been paid on private account before NHS existed, and a further large sum had been spent with the "innumerable harpies who battened on the sick".

People certainly use medical services more freely now that doctor's bills do not frighten them. But they still spend large sums privately on medicines and dressings for the self-treatment of minor ailments, and they still hobble out to sit in miserable surgery waiting-rooms, even though the only penalty for asking the doctor to call for a minor illness, would be the knowledge that one was delaying attention for someone in greater need.

Domestic Water in London

Ratepayers in London pay, in addition to their ordinary municipal rates, an annual sum to the Metropolitan Water Board. Anyone who can reach a tap, drinking fountain or horse trough in the area served by the MWB can then help himself to as much water as he likes.

This is by no means the only way of paying for water distribution. In Australia, much of America and many other places, water for domestic use is piped through meters and charged for according to the amount consumed, like London's gas and electricity. In Algiers it is sold through meters to house-owners, who retail it through smaller meters to their tenants (usually making a minimum charge of 11 gallons per day per inhabited room). Meter charging was used in parts of England
(not in the London area) during this century.

The fact that Londoners have never paid quantitively for piped water is largely the result of historical accident. In 1237 when the burghers of London decided the streams and wells within the city walls were no longer sufficient, the City was very powerful and various outsiders were anxious to secure its good will; King Henry III got one of his followers to grant the City access to springs on his estate, and a group of foreign merchants donated the cost of laying the conduit. As the City continued to grow it added to its supplies by the same sort of quiet blackmail; three centuries elapsed before water cost anything to the Corporation, and by then a tradition was established that piped water was as freely accessible as river water. Then the first private water companies had catchment areas too small to guarantee a continuous supply in all weathers and secured themselves financially by charging so much per year rather than so much per gallon.

In 1884 the City Corporation introduced a Parliamentary bill for compelling the companies to supply water by meter on demand, but by then the tradition of free access to water had grown too strong and the bill was defeated. The main arguments against it were "that it would encourage the stinting of water … and that it would overthrow the system whereby the wealthier section of the community helped to relieve the poorer."

Industrial undertakings which use large quantities of water are charged quantitatively by the MWB, which also operates about 2,000 meters in the domestic mains and employs a staff of waste inspectors to control leakage and cut down cost. The individual domestic consumer who wastes small amounts of water cannot be detected, and could not be penalized in any way, even if he wasted quite a lot.

But the overwhelming majority of consumers co-operate voluntarily in the prevention of waste, by turning off taps which are not in use, and keeping taps in good repair at their own expense.

The Free Railway of Fiji

The Colonial Sugar Refining Company Limited owns some 440 miles of permanent light railway in Fiji, which it uses for bringing cane to the sugar mills. In accordance with the original agreement under which the railways was constructed, the Company also operates a passenger service through the island of Viti Levu, from Sigatoka to Tavua, a distance of 129 miles. The one passenger train chugs twice weekly in both directions, stopping often, with an all-night stop at Lautoka; and it is usually overcrowded, with people sitting, standing and hanging on. British Railways, with all its faults, seldom if ever provides a service as bad as this.

But the Fijian railway has one unique advantage: it makes no charge to passengers.

I have no direct knowledge of the Fijian public's sense of responsibility towards the railway. However, the Sugar Company has done many favours for the local government since its railway was constructed, and if it found the free train embarrassing it could easily have obtained an agreement to make a charge, or discontinue the service.

The Soviet Twenty-year Plan

This is not an example of free access in practice now, but it is sometimes offered as an example of free access in the near future, so I might as well mention it.

"This generation will live under Communism" is the slogan dreamed-up by Soviet publicity men to present the plan for economic development until 1980. If Communism means "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need", the slogan is a bit exaggerated. Most of the vast increase in collective wealth envisaged by the programme will be distributed to specific classes of people. Thus: abolition of direct taxes for those wealthy enough to pay them; free communal meals for workers in factories, institutions and collective farms; free maintenance for children at school and people unable to work; shorter hours for industrial workers, especially miners. I am sure none of these proposals is objectionable, but they are nothing to do with distribution according to need.

On the other hand there are promises of: free medical services (extending the existing service to include medicines and sanatoria), free water, gas, and heating. If "free" in these cases means free to all comers, the fulfilment of these small promises would do more to advance Communism (as distinct from Russian Imperialism) than a whole moonful of soldiers.

Some objections to free access

The most frequent argument advanced against the idea of free access is that people are not responsible enough for it: "to give the public opportunity for undetected theft is to demoralize it", "people cannot be trusted to use the service intelligently" and so on. Freedom, we are told, is for saints, not real people. This is the argument I set out to refute with my examples, and I hope I have shown that where ordinary people are given responsibility they tend to act responsibly, without becoming in the least saintly.

There is another moralistic argument that, apart from abuses, having something for nothing is wrong-in-itself. A few years ago there was a campaign to prevent "foreigners" from enjoying the benefits of NHS, on the grounds that they had "not contributed". (This was of course a misunderstanding; anyone contributes to NHS who buys a half-pint of beer or pays taxes any other way). Experts and politicians patiently explained that the bureaucratic machinery for excluding foreigners would cost more than any treatment they might obtain: but the campaigners were hurt at the suggestion of stinginess on their part, and made it quite clear that rather than spend a shilling on treating a sick foreigner, they would spend ten shillings making sure he didn't get treatment.

The science of behaviour is young, and I doubt if anyone understands the mentality of such people. My opinion, for what it is worth, is that a pious, patriotic upbringing has robbed them, both of the heart to be generous and of the guts to be selfish.

I suppose the first reaction of many anarchists to my examples would be to point out how limited they are, adding that the Ministry of Health and the Colonial Sugar Refining Company have motives other than pure generosity. I would reply that any degree of opportunity for people to regulate their own lives, no matter how it is obtained, is to be welcomed; and I trust most anarchists would agree.

There is, however, an argument, advanced not by anarchists so much as by certain Marxist thinkers, that a modicum of free access now is a bad thing, because it tends to make people content with their lot, and so delay the glorious revolution and the millennium when everyone will have free access to everything. For reasons which will appear, I think this argument is false; but even if I thought it valid I should suspect the bona fides of anyone prepared to sacrifice the small happiness of this generation, for the presumed greater happiness of the yet-unborn.

An alternative to buying and selling

Compared with free access, buying and selling is a crassly inefficient way of distributing wealth. Thousands of people spend their lives reading gas and electricity meters; if gas and electricity were free all that labour would be saved. Millions of man-hours are spent weighing tea into precise quarter-pound packets; if tea were free all that time would be spare. Weeks are spent deciding who is entitled to relief from bodies like the National Assistance Board; if the basic necessities of life were free …(I will not go on; there is enough profitless activity in the world already). Except in the context of a money economy, banking, stockbroking and much of accounting are a waste of time, commercial advertising and its ancillaries are a waste of time, all the jobs connected with travel tickets are a waste of time.

The counterpart of the free access principle is that people should decide for themselves when, where, and at what tasks they should work. Without the "incentive" of wages, people would probably not choose to work as long or as drudgingly as they do now; nor would they need to. A fraction of the total time now spent in which the Direction of Labour Order calls "gainful employment", devoted to the actual production of usable wealth, could satisfy everyone's basic needs.

I say "basic" needs, because I agree with anyone who says it is impossible for all the requirements of whole human beings to be satisfied. As long as there is ambition, the healthy urge to self-improvement and self-enlargement, there must be some excess of demand over supply. I have already gone further than I intended in the direction of "drawing a blueprint for the free society", so I offer it not as a prediction or a doctrine, but merely as a logical possibility, that the distribution of scarce goods could be controlled by the producers, much as the distribution of home-made marmalade is controlled now. If there were a shortage of, say, telescopes, the actual makers, or those who imported them from a well-stocked area, could dole them out to themselves, their friends, and anyone who could put them under an obligation or impress them with his need for a telescope. This would not be a perfect way of placing available telescopes where they were most needed, but it would work at least as well as the buying and selling system.

But of course it is unfair to write as if the buying and selling system were intended to distribute wealth according to need. It is much nearer the complicated truth to say money is for maintaining the powerful in power, and keeping the poor from getting too rich.

Towards a free access economy[/h2]

The free access method seems to advance quickly once it gets started in a particular field. James Duff Brown was a courageous eccentric in 1894, but his colleagues imitated his open-access system when they saw it in operation. A later writer observed that in this matter the libraries did but follow the parks, which allowed free access to grass and flowers despite occasional abuses. The old Fijians who insisted on a free passenger service as a condition of a railway licence, may well have been influenced by the tradition of free access to locally-maintained tracks. And the successful agitation against the penny charge in Ladies' toilets is inspired by the knowledge that access is free to Gentlemen's urinals.

People do not easily change their habits. If they are used to obeying they may find it difficult to make decisions; but if they grow used to exercising a little responsibility they find they can cope with a little more. The more self-directed we are, the nearer we are to individual sovereignty.

I hate to strike a spark of optimism into the justified gloom of the H-bomb era, but I think perhaps people are learning to regard the right to decide how much they will take, of a growing number of services and commodities, as an ordinary, unrevolutionary, civil right.


I have written on a dull-sounding subject and I don't propose to frighten potential readers with a dull-looking list of sources. Let anyone who wants to follow up my facts write to me.

I acknowledge the assistance of the library staff of the Colonial Office for references to Fiji, and the enthusiastic help of the Librarian and Research office of the Library Association, who (in response to a request from a non-member writing for a journal he had never heard of) found me references to open-access in about two dozen different books.

[I] DONALD ROOUM, born at Bradford, 1928, is a typographer and free-lance cartoonist who has
been writing intermittently for FREEDOM since 1947.

Posted By

Jun 26 2016 19:28


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