WASHINGTON — Washington. -- With a spirit stronger than the reasoning behind it, Sharon Percy Rockefeller, president of WETA, Public Broadcasting in Washington, reprimands me for advocating an end to federal subsidies for public television. My offense, which her riposte moves me to re-commit, is this argument: Whatever one thinks of the case made a generation ago for public funding, the case collapses in today's utterly transformed technological and fiscal contexts.
To advance the argument, I will stipulate that public television is a net enhancement of American life. If the waving of a magic wand could sustain it, the wand should be waved. But what public television wants is another $1.1 billion for three years. So the pertinent question is not whether, as Ms. Rockefeller says, public television "improves" us. Rather, the question is whether public television -- a paradigm of government's ornamental activities, pleasant but inessential -- has a strong claim on some of government's scarce resources. Are its claims stronger than those of child immunization, the National Institutes of Health and a thousand competing causes?
Ms. Rockefeller says public television is part of government's promotion of "the pursuit of happiness." Actually, it exemplifies government in the distorted role of deliverer of happiness. And to whom? To an economically and intellectually advantaged constituency that could and should fend for itself to satisfy its appetite for cultural services.
When public television began, before the advent of cable and the VCR, it increased from three to four the choices available to most viewers. Today most households have scores of channels to choose from, including some (such as Discovery and Arts & Entertainment) that offer programming comparable to much of public television's programming.
Ms. Rockefeller responds, "More outlets do not necessarily mean more choices; an increase in quantity does not automatically result in more diversity or higher quality." Surely Ms. Rockefeller is not denying the explosion of televised diversity. Instead, her argument suggests that any demand the market satisfies must be of dubious quality.
The rationale is that no matter how much programming the market provides, government is supposed to provide more. Why? Because its programming is supposed to serve an audience so small or idiosyncratic or devoted to "quality" that market forces, even those now offering a proliferation of programming to a much-segmented market, will not satisfy it.
Ms. Rockefeller says of me, "He concludes that government should consign public broadcasting -- and by extension other cultural institutions -- to the forces of the marketplace." And she likens public television to "public schools, universities, libraries, hospitals, museums, symphonies and national parks." But it is Ms. Rockefeller who makes an unreasonable extension.
Many cultural institutions serving small and primarily affluent audiences should indeed be weaned from dependence on tax dollars, especially federal dollars. And it is not in Ms. Rockefeller's interest to put public television on any list with hospitals, which are institutions of life and death, and schools and universities, which are essential for preparing the population for freedom and social competence.
Which brings us to today's fiscal facts as public television seeks a 50 percent increase of its subsidy.
Beginning in 1969 (two years after creation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting) the Nixon administration debated establishing a guaranteed annual income. Debate raged concerning practicalities and ethics -- but not costs. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., later published a 559-page book on the controversy, devoting just 34 lines -- lines -- to costs. Back then, he says, "it was simply a given" that "money would be
found" for any nice idea.
Given the $400 billion deficit, what difference does another $1 billion make? That argument says no choices are necessary as long as government borrowing can push costs into the future. But the need for spending cuts is indisputable. So as it contemplates public television's subsidy, Congress should ask two simple questions: If not here, where? If not now, when?
If something as marginal as public television successfully defends its subsidy, cuts can come only at the expense of Americans less affluent, educated, articulate and skillful at lobbying than public television's aggressively moralistic constituency. And public television will be a paradigm of government's role as servant of the comfortable and defender of the strong at the expense of the future.
George Will is a syndicated columnist.