The Case for Small Government

A Libertarian Perspective on Economic and Social Policy

March 21, 2006


National Public Radio (NPR) and the Public Broadcasting System (PBS), which produce public radio and television programming, both rely in part on government funding. The standard justification is that NPR/PBS programs serve a valuable social purpose yet would never be produced by private markets. This argument is not convincing

Much NPR/PBS programming would exist without government funding. Shows like All Things Considered and Sesame Street are high quality and can compete on their own. Pay cable channels such as Biography, the History Channel, or Arts and Entertainment show that serious, in-depth content can survive in the marketplace. And some NPR/PBS programs, such as Car Talk, serve no broad social purpose even if highly entertaining.

Some NPR/PBS programs might not succeed without government funding. If so, then government is shaping what is presented on TV and radio. Supporters of NPR/PBS would like to believe this shaping is “neutral,” merely promoting high quality programs without taking sides. That view is naïve, at best. Any organization has a perspective, and since NPR/PBS receive government funding, everyone must support their perspective whether they agree or not. The funding is therefore a polarizing activity for government.

The real pity is that government funding represents a small percentage of NPR/PBS funding. Thus all the controversy occurs over small amounts of money. It would be better for everyone if NPR/PBS could be hard-hitting whenever they wish, without worrying about running afoul of Congress. This can only happen if the funding stops.


At 8:37 AM, Blogger Chris said...

Amen Brother.

At 9:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another amen, brother.

At 3:50 PM, Blogger Al Brown said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 3:52 PM, Blogger Al Brown said...

PBS has some great stuff and I'd hate to see it go away. I don't think it would if government stopped financing it.

Government probably makes it HARDER for the free market to produce good quality non-commercial television, mostly through its management of the air waves, which is quite antiquated.

The available broadcast bandwidth is grossly under-utilized. This is even more the case now that more precise clocks exist and a signal can be sent using a much smaller slice of the available bandwidth.

Instead of allocating "channels", we'd be better off if specific portions of the spectrum were owned by private entities and these could be resold in a secondary market. Those owners would figure out how to maximize the use of that bandwidth.

We have an artifical bandwidth shortage because of government control. Right now, first responders are waiting for the switch to HDTV so they can get adequate bandwidth to communicate with each other, which was a major problem on 9/11.

At 3:53 PM, Blogger Mike Huben said...

Ah, an ideological purity test. You're not a true libertarian unless you can agree with these patently stupid ideas that attack the great liberal sacred cow of PBS.

Never mind that the funding for PBS is insignificant. Never mind that many pay channels such as the History channel use PBS-developed markets and programs. Never mind that even if the worst dictator controlled PBS programming, people would simply switch channels. Never mind that until Sesame Street, educational television for children was an oxymoron. Never mind that television and radio uncontrolled by commercial interests is a rarity. Never mind that profit is not a measure of benefit to the public when externalities are involved.

Never mind Miron's silly article. It's just recycling right-wing talking points that have been around for between 3 and 6 decades.

At 6:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you're wrong on this one. It isn't the funding that is polarizing, per se, it is the control that funding provides. The recent attempts by Bush politicos to swing NPR/PBS's coverage to the right isn't because of the money involved. It is because it is a media source that they thought could be exploited.

We would be better off if we had less political involvement, say in the way the Fed works, not less funding.

At 11:40 PM, Blogger Chris said...

It would be really neat if Mike Huben actually supplied an argument once instead of ad hominem attacks.

At 5:37 AM, Blogger Mike Huben said...

Smilerz, why don't you look up ad hominem before you toss that term around.

At 11:12 PM, Blogger James said...

If the funding for PBS is insignificant, why do people get all bent out of shape over eliminating it? Some years ago I recall a very left leaning college professor telling me that PBS gets less than 1% of its funding from people's taxes. Maybe this number is off, but if PBS only get a trivial amount of its revenues from the government, that seems to imply that they really don't need to rely on government money to stay in operation, providing their (claimed) valuable programming. Of course that raises another issue. If someone knows that the government funding of PBS is really insignificant, exactly what is supposed to be the benefit of involving the government?

At 3:50 PM, Blogger Michael Lomker said...

I work at a public broadcaster. It's true that only a very small percentage of operating budgets come from direct funding. What they aren't saying is that the CPB operates a significant grant system.

I don't think that any public station could have justified or paid for the conversion to HD-Radio or HDTV without a grant to do so. The costs are difficult even for for-profit enterprises to justify.

At 5:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that Mike Huben is tossing around a fairly baised arguement based on unsubstantial evidence.

The real base of this article is the future of non-commercial media format in a capitalist environment.

We could all learn something from our friends across the lake in the UK. Their public broadcasting system (BBC) is highly developed, providing quality programming and news. This removes all corprate bias from their stations and they no longer rely on ratings to drive what society "needs to know".

Left or right wing, we could all use a good dose of truth these days without the spin provided by commercial broadcasting.

At 4:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

But now the funding to PBS will mean more to me now than it did. I had no problems with it before, in fact, I would usually argue with people for the funding. Once the digital conversion takes effect, I'll no longer be able to receive PBS. Should we fund it now that a lot of people will be left in the dark, or should we fund it more and ensure that everybody in the U.S. will be able to receive it?

At 2:15 AM, Blogger bruce said...

The comparison with the BBC is a good one, because it points out how problematic many of NPR's programs are. BBC radio tends to focus on simply reporting news when they do report on it, and otherwise carry things like "In our time" which are educational in nature. NPR's news programs don't introduce a "new" viewpoint, they repeat mainly the same view that one gets on MSNBC nowdays. What really demonstrates NPR's news slant is Brooke Gladstone's comment that "NPR has remained in the center while the public has drifted to the right" - even if that's the case it still means you are to the left of the public, and that's the only measure that matters. There is no other measure of bias.

And yes, NPR gets more than 1% of it's funding from the government, it plays a shell game in a sense but government is a source (one way or the other) of at least 10% of their funding.

Finally, NPR News makes it impossible to get liberal talk radio off the ground. They can't get the audience they need.

At 2:18 AM, Blogger bruce said...

Good analysis:
The bias against conservatives and Republicans is the most visible, though not necessarily the most fervently held one (the pro-Palestinian bias comes to mind here). Democratic politicians and former members of the Carter and Clinton administrations are frequent guests on the shows. Conservatives on NPR are as rare as a snow flake in the midst of summer. Since the bias against Republicans is so ubiquitous, it can be easily shown:

The issues that keep Washington politicians and pundits occupied are often initiated by interest groups and so-called "think tanks." It seems that for every liberal group there is a conservative counterpart. The most influential Democratic think tank is the Brookings Institution, while the premiere think tank on the Republican side is the Heritage Foundation. When you search Google News for the two names, you find an about equal number of citations for both, with a slight advantage for the Heritage Foundation (53%). Searching for the think tanks on NPR's web site, the Heritage Foundations seems to be almost non-existent (19%). Obviously, the folks at NPR don't like to talk to fellows with conservative ideas.

At 5:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Public broadcasting (government funded) networks are no more a guarantee of truth & unbiased opinion than commercial networks!
In fact they are more likely more biased with spin doctoring. By their very nature they are biased toward liberal ideals (big government, government funding &/or proprietorship). This is to me the biggest argument against any tax payer funding for them. It's absolutely unjust to force tax payers to fund liberal propaganda! At least Libertarians & Conservatives fund their own propaganda!

At 8:15 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Stop the funding let them compete like everybody else!

At 2:52 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

You mention the History Channel as an example of programs developed by the private sector? Last time I watched, it was mostly shows about space aliens, Nostradamus and what was going to happen when the Inca calendar ran out. That's quality programming?

At 9:28 AM, Anonymous Kal Skirata said...

Bruce Bias is based on TRUTH not public opinion. i can be spot on with public opinion that the earth is flat...but that does not make it true.

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