Welfare for the Well-Off

The case against government subsidies for public broadcasting


The local public radio station, WCVE, is in the midst of its spring fundraiser. As someone who tunes in most mornings, I kicked in some bucks for the good of the cause last week. And if you pay taxes in Virginia, you did, too.

Gov. Bob McDonnell tried to have it otherwise. He sought repeatedly to slash state funding for public broadcasting, but was gainsaid by the General Assembly—which trimmed appropriations for public radio and TV by only 10 percent.

During debate on the governor's budget amendments last Wednesday, Del. Jennifer McClellan, a Richmond Democrat, displayed an Elmo doll on her desk. Dear, cute, sweet Elmo! All those in favor of tossing the little red fellow into the fetid maw of some slaverous beast vomited up from the bowels of hell by voting to defund "Sesame Street," please raise a hand. Nobody? Not one soul? Didn't think so.

That, regrettably, seems to be roughly the level of discourse surrounding public broadcasting: Are you pro-Elmo, or do you hate anything that makes children happy?

This is known as the fallacy of the false alternative. There is of course a third alternative. Elmo, NPR, Frontline, and many other menu items on the public-broadcasting buffet could do just fine without a government subsidy, and might even be better off, as former NPR exec Ron Schiller said in a now-infamous sting video by right-wing provocateur James O'Keefe.

Public broadcasting's supporters sometimes say otherwise. When critics of government subsidies complain about the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, friends of NPR (etc.) say the government stipend is just a drop in a very large funding bucket. When critics then say in that case the stipend would not be missed if it were stopped, supporters say funding cuts would be devastating. Well: Is the stipend significant, or not?

Assume it is significant. To say that cutting the subsidy would be devastating is not, in itself, an argument against doing so—because it does not explain why the subsidy should exist in the first place.

Here, supporters of public broadcasting make two points. First, public broadcasting serves state purposes because stations sometimes help out with online training for schoolteachers and provide educational programming used in the schools. Yes, but: Is a stipend for public broadcasting the only way to provide such services? If the answer is "yes," then wouldn't it be useful to treat the station providers as contractors who should invoice the state for services rendered? When the commonwealth of Virginia buys ammunition for state troopers, it doesn't provide a general subsidy for the Remington corporation with the vague expectation that the local gun store will eventually send over a few boxes of 9 mm cartridges in return.

It used to be possible to argue that public broadcasting provides program content unavailable elsewhere. But the profusion of new media—from educational children's TV to live-streamed Internet feeds from General Assembly floor debates—has blunted that point almost to a nullity. There may be occasional shows that offer unique content, such as the recent "Virginia Currents" feature on the Flying Circus of Bealeton air show. Does such a program truly serve a core purpose of state government? Really?

It certainly does not serve a social-welfare function. The median household income of an NPR listener is $86,000—50 percent higher than that of an ordinary American family. Public broadcasting subsidies are welfare for rich (or at least richer) people.

The remaining case for supporting public broadcasting (other than the fact that the wrong people oppose it—a knee-jerk, red-team/blue-team reaction that seems to explain a great many positions taken on both sides of the political aisle these days) is that public broadcasting does many wonderful things. This runs up against what one might call the Libyan-intervention question.

The Obama administration essentially has said humanitarian reasons trump constitutional rules about who can start a war. But humanitarian reasons would justify military intervention in a dozen or more places around the globe. So why single out Libya? Likewise, countless organizations and institutions do good things. Why single out public broadcasting for government support? Why not also give government money to newspapers, to the Girl Scouts, to the SPCA, and so on ad infinitum? No coherent answer forthcomes.

One complaint about public broadcasting commands sympathy. Only a small percentage of those who listen to public radio and watch public television contribute during pledge drives—despite the fact, as noted above, that they tend to have more disposable income. A far greater percentage of listeners, however, seem to think non-listeners should be forced through compulsory taxation to support what they themselves will not support voluntarily.

To explain that peculiarity, one should turn to Brian Caplan, an economist at George Mason University. "The wealthy but uncharitable socialist," he wrote a few years ago in The Independent Review, "ceases to be a mystery once you understand relative prices. Voluntary charity is costly to the giver, but voting for charity … is virtually free."

A. Barton Hinkle is a columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch. This article originally appeared at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.