My local library fines its patrons ten cents per overdue book per day. They will let you continue to borrow books as long as your fine balance is less than $10. As an academic, I sort of think of library fines as a cost of doing business, and I frequently carry a balance in library fines of a few dollars. (To be clear: I mostly incur these fines on books taken out for pleasure reading. What I mean is that I don’t have a moralistic attitude about my library fines.) Since there are no interest charges or time limits, I can carry such a balance for months on end. I’m following the rules, not cheating anyone, and I have never felt bad about my habit of being a few bucks in debt to the library.
This is pretty much the same attitude I have toward all my bills. I try to pay my bills on time, because I don’t want late payment penalties or interest charges or my utilities cut off. If they will let me delay payment without penalties, I will take advantage of this if it’s convenient. In other words, in every financial transaction with an institution, I follow the rules, and within those rules I take whatever course of action is most convenient/prudent/utility-maximizing for me.
Things are different with debts toward individual people. If I borrow money from family or friends, I make a strenuous effort to pay it back as soon as possible. I would never drag a personal debt along just because the person didn’t need the money or wouldn’t harass me about it. Paying off debts quickly, not presuming on another’s good will, is a way of expressing one’s respect for the relationship and for the other person.
I have detected, in some people, an attitude about public library fines that is similar to the moralized attitude toward personal debts. That is, some people feel that incurring library fines at all is a (small) personal failing, and if you do incur them you should pay them off as soon as possible. Carrying them for lengthy periods of time is a character flaw. And all this is true regardless of the rules or penalties around fines and borrowing. On this view, of course, my attitudes and actions vis-à-vis my library fines are blameworthy.
I can think of two lines of argument to support the moralized view of library fines/fine-paying.
The Kantian argument: If everyone treated their library fines the way I do, the library system couldn’t go on. I am free-riding.
Reply: I’m not sure that’s true; I suspect library fines are a trivial part of the public library budget. But suppose it were. Then presumably the library system would crack down on freeloaders like myself, and I would pay my fines in that case. Then the library system would go on fine. (Is that a defense?)
The expressivist argument: The public library system is one of the more gratuitous elements of the social contract in the US. Unlike sanitation or electricity, we could live well enough without it, which means you have no moral claim on society for its services, and they don’t have a lot of leverage against their patrons. There is a friendly, community-oriented … personal aspect to the very existence of public libraries. Prompt payment of library fines is one way to express respect and support for that gratuitous element of community, for the kind of communal relations that support institutions like public libraries. In treating library fines like personal debts rather than mere financial transactions, one weaves another thread into the social fabric, and strengthens the bonds of social trust. (Can anybody make this argument sharper? I feel I have not done it justice.)
Reply: Really? I’m threatening the fabric of society by carrying $5 in library fines?
I’d be interested to know which side of this dispute people come down on, and whether there are any arguments I’ve missed.