Being Right: Wants or Needs?

Will Whetzel

American politicians have always struggled to find a safe middle ground between idealism and pragmatism. In all areas of political debate, these politicians attempt to discern, on one hand, which policy measures are foolishly idealistic and on the other, which run contrary to the very ideals on which this country was founded. But nowhere is this debate more pronounced than in the current dispute over the federal budget.

Most recently, this discussion has revolved around Mr. Romney’s claims in the first presidential debate that he would cut funding for (among other things) the Public Broadcasting Service, the public cable service that is famous for broadcasting popular shows such as Sesame Street. Following the de-bate, most Democrats ridiculed the presidential hopeful’s plan, claiming that public broadcasting is a necessary part of a healthy democracy and that funding for it accounts for only a miniscule part of the federal budget. But these arguments overlook important facts about the Public Broadcasting Service, as well as the role of the federal government in general. In fact, there are both idealistic and pragmatic reasons to cut funding for PBS.

At first glance, a public broadcasting organization such as PBS seems like a fairly necessary part of a vibrant democracy. Indeed, it al-lows for easy dissemination of opinions and information, an important cornerstone of our democratic ideology.

However, the reality of the matter is much different. While the theoretical reasoning for the existence of PBS is sound, the empirical evidence paints a different picture. Last year, the federal government paid $430 million to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the um-brella organization that contains PBS and other broadcasting units such as NPR.

While this is indeed a small sum compared to the rest of the fed-eral budget, it is still a large expenditure considering that it comes from individual taxpayers. Generally, about 123 million viewers tune into PBS broadcasting each month. This means that even if all of these viewers watch PBS regularly and derive a great deal of ben-efit from it (both premises are very unlikely), the entire popula-tion is paying to subsidize the entertainment of a small portion of it. Needless to say, this runs quite contrary to the ideology of the United States.

Additionally, government intervention in a private industry, such as the broadcasting industry, is at odds with America’s ethic of free private enterprise. For the most part, the federal government does not fully pay for all of the shows broadcasted on PBS. Most shows raise money the old fashioned way: through corporate sponsor-ships and merchandise sales. Indeed, a post-debate statement from the producers of Sesame Street, one of PBS’s highest rated shows, claimed that even without public financing, the show would be able to fund itself. This indicates that at least some of the money that is being paid to the Cor-poration for Public Broadcasting is actually unnecessary, and therefore a wasteful use of precious taxpayer money.

This is where pragmatism comes in. Currently, one major issue defines politics in America: the fact that the United States cannot pay for its current obligations (Social Security, Medicare, etc.). So, what should the federal government pay for and how will it pay for these things? It is crucial that the government analyze its current outlays and determines whether or not they are worth funding.

In light of the fact that public broadcasting has a relatively low public utility (as compared to other programs, such as education), and is possibly an inefficient use of public funds, it seems clear that providing funding for the Corporation of Public Broadcasting is indeed inessential. While it seems ideologically appealing to fund a public broadcasting organization, in practice, such a move actually detracts from our ability to have a smoothly functioning democracy.

The debate between idealism and pragmatism is often confusing, as each theory tends to point in opposite directions. However, in this case, the answer is simple: both idealism and pragmatism point to the fact that public broadcasting is in some ways desirable, but ultimately unnecessary.

Contact Will Whetzel at [email protected].