Last week The House voted to defund NPR by cutting the Gordian ties between Washington and the radio network. A metaphor for everything Washington, nobody knows how much government nectar flows to NPR or in what form – estimates vary from $4MM to $90MM, not to mention its dubious tax exempt status. Sen. Harry Reid offered a typically pathetic defense of NPR by citing critical investigative reporting on dog racing. To be sure, NPR provides a left-leaning window into esoteric topics no other radio station covers, but time has passed NPR by. News sources like 24 hr. cable, blogs, and Sirius have made NPR hopelessly obsolete. Without government funding, NPR’s content could easily find a home on the internet or on Sirius. Why, then, does the left convulse at the thought of NPR’s defunding; why is a world without NPR unthinkable to statists?
The obvious answer to the left’s attachment to NPR is that it is a consistent voice for government. NPR uses government funds to report on opportunities to spend more government money. Statists and dictators have always had government propaganda outlets, and NPR serves this role comparatively benignly. NPR makes for fairly easy training in Becking a story (i.e. Internet searching the names of NPR guests to reveal that they are often radical revolutionaries and communists). Still, there is more to NPR appeal.
George Mason economics professor Daniel Klein published The People’s Romance, a paper on why people are so reluctant to give up even obviously worthless government programs. He presents several theories, including Adam Smith’s idea that people naturally seek to coordinate their sentiments, not just Pareto self-interest. Unlike talk radio and blogs, NPR is a one way flow of left wing sentiment; it coordinates the sentiments of its listeners. NPR is the left’s shaman telling his tribe the stories that define a cultural identity. Klein would argue that this collectivist instinct is part of what keeps government programs alive well past their logical termination.
Since NPR’s message and mission would surely continue without public funding, what difference does it make to the left? A $90MM program’s termination rarely makes the news, or draws the ire of the Senate Majority Leader. Who should care? Klein goes on to observe that capitalist entities are like clubs to which not everyone is invited, while government entities are perceived as The People’s Romance or belonging to the people. Even though capitalism provides more and better services than the government, non-investors feel a greater sense of ownership and kinship toward government programs. Defunding NPR will hurt nobody, but it goes against the sense of community at the heart of NPR’s admirers.
The concept of The People’s Romance sounds like communism because it is exactly that. At its heart, communism and collectivism offer less prosperity in exchange for a sense of safety. Collectivists often refer to the ‘Socialist Family,’ Orwell depicted ‘Big Brother,’ and Social Security is a ‘safety net.’ These terms are comforting, safe, and reliable. Socialism is stagnation, but also a false promise of security. Government waste and corruption is accepted because government poses as a substitute for family and community. These are the feelings that keep even the most obviously worthless government program intact decades after it ceases to serve the people.
People are easily lulled into collectivist delusions like NPR, but they are also resilient; they provide for themselves when there are no handouts. Once NPR is defunded, liberals will begin the painful adjustment of finding their news, entertainment, and tribal identity elsewhere. Eventually, as NPR’s defunding becomes a non-event, people will realize that there is life after government programs. Perhaps NPR will be a baby step toward reducing government’s role in more important areas. On the other hand, if NPR can’t be defunded, there is no hope for entitlement reform, or the elimination of larger, even more worthless departments.
Government programs like NPR are a comforting tonic for the collectivist instinct, and they are hard to abandon. Still, the road to restoring Washington’s financial viability starts with cutting even tiny programs like NPR because that is the way toward a US that is more individualist and self-reliant.