Jonah Goldberg
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But until the Internet, it didn't matter. Sure, Playboy might make it through, "for the articles." But not even the most radical or deranged librarians could ever justify subscribing to Juggs over National Geographic, because in a world of limited resources, prudential editing is not merely valuable, it's unavoidable.

But the Internet changed all that. The marginal cost of obtaining pornographic materials in libraries, once prohibitively high, is now nearly nonexistent. In fact, it's actually cheaper just to let it all flood in. Who wants to deal with the filters, blockers and monitors? Just proclaim that the First Amendment requires unfettered access to porn.

But, again, just imagine there was no Internet, and all two-dimensional smut was still on paper, celluloid or magnetic tape. Now imagine trying to argue before a cash-strapped city council that the local public library must not only provide some porn -- free of charge! -- to the public, but that it must provide mountains of it free of charge to the public, all because the First Amendment says so.

You'd be laughed out of the room.

Did the First Amendment change with the invention of the Internet? Of course not. What changed is that librarians lost both the "scarce resources" excuse and the backbone to invoke any other rationale -- decency, child welfare, hygiene, safety, etc. -- for barring it from public libraries.

Technological progress poses such challenges. Don't get me wrong: I love technological progress. But technology makes life easier, and when life is easier, it's harder to stick to the rules that were once essential to getting by in life.

The list of customs and values that were formed or informed by material necessity is too long to contemplate because it includes nearly all of them. Cultures, like cuisines, are formed as much by what isn't available as what is. Scarcity of meat is the mother of good seasoning.

The Internet doesn't completely eliminate scarcity of porn (or of hilarious kitten videos), but it gets us closer than humanity has ever been before. When scarcity drops, so does the price. And it seems that for the New York Public Library, like the lady in the Churchill story, price was always the issue.

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Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the forthcoming book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
 
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