Recently the media discovered that the federal government had paid the conservative commentator Armstrong Williams $240,000 to promote the No Child Left Behind education law passed during the first term of the Bush administration. Americans are right to condemn this arrangement, but we are in danger of missing a more important point.
Not surprisingly, the press has focused on Williams’ conflict of interest. The media, even columnists, are supposed to be independent of the government to provide the public credible news about politics. To keep the public’s trust journalists should not work for the government. If they do, they should at least disclose who pays their salary and let their readers decide if it matters.
By focusing on the media ethics angle, we are missing the bigger issue in the Williams affair. Take Armstrong Williams out of the picture. What happened? The federal government took money from taxpayers and spent it trying to persuade those same taxpayers of the wisdom of federal education policy.
In the other words, the feds intervened in the political process on behalf of one position in a policy debate. But this is nothing new. Government gets into politics all the time at all levels.
The Metro subway system in Washington, DC, buys billboards urging riders to contact their local public officials and demand more spending on….the Metro. Riders who are skeptical about spending more on Metro can only wish they could force taxpayers to fund ads for their views.
A couple of years ago the governor of Ohio spent significant sums of public money on a political campaign to defeat an initiative to offer treatment rather than prison to people charged for the first or second time with simple drug possession.
Federal subsidies for political advocacy are on the rise. The Bush administration spent $250 million on public relations during its first term. Some of that spending sought to foster support for administration policies on Medicare prescriptions and drug enforcement efforts. In its second term, the Clinton administration devoted $128 million of public money to publicity.
Unfortunately government subsidies for political advocacy are not new. Two decades ago, the economists James Bennett and Thomas DiLorenzo documented the many ways taxpayers were forced to support political causes of the left and the right. Even then the subsidies ran into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
What’s wrong with government advocacy funded by taxpayers? It distorts and subverts representative democracy while abridging freedom of speech.
In our government, the arrow of authority is supposed to run from the people through their representatives to the government. The government should reflect, not determine, the desires of the people. Once government intervenes in the political process, its massive resources and putative authority will change the outcomes of political struggles compared to what they would have been if the government had kept its proper distance. Such distortions are bound to favor the interests of those who run the government, be they partisans or bureaucrats.
By taking sides with taxpayer funds, the government also forces everyone to support the policies of those who (temporarily) control the government. Critics of No Child Left Behind saw their tax dollars go toward supporting the law. Metro riders have to pay for pleas to spend more on the subway even if they think more prudential management would improve service. Once government gets involved, freedom of speech becomes the “freedom” to support what elected officials support. Such forced speech contravenes the deepest principles of our nation. As Thomas Jefferson said, “To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical.”
The first task of the 109th Congress should be getting government (and the taxpayers) out of the business of funding political advocacy. That means cutting off the flow of money to journalists like Armstrong Williams. It also requires Congress to eliminate the subsidies to politically active groups, some of which have been on the dole for decades. In 1995, the new Republican majority began the job by proscribing lobbying with public funds. Then the cuts went under the name “defunding the left.” Now the problem is more bipartisan and should aim at “defunding everyone.” Freedom and democracy demand no less.