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The Inalienable Right to a Remote

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By George F. Will
Thursday, December 8, 2005

Feeling, evidently, flush with (other people's) cash, the Senate has concocted a novel way to spend $3 billion: create a new entitlement. The Senate has passed -- and so has the House, with differences -- an entitlement to digital television.

If this filigree on the welfare state becomes law, everyone who owns old analog television sets -- everyone from your Aunt Emma in her wee apartment to the millionaire in the neighborhood McMansion who has such sets in the maid's room and the guest house -- will get subsidies to pay for making those sets capable of receiving digital signals.

If you think America is suffering an entitlement glut, you may have just hurled the newspaper across the room. Pick it up and read on, because this story illustrates the timeless truth that no matter how deeply you distrust the government's judgment, you are too trusting. Here, as explained by James L. Gattuso of the Heritage Foundation, is the crisis du jour: The nation is making a slow transition from analog to digital television broadcasting.

Why is this a crisis? Because, although programming currently is broadcast in both modes, by April 2009 broadcasters must end analog transmissions and the government will have auctioned the analog frequencies for various telecommunications purposes. For the vast majority of Americans, April 2009 will mean . . . absolutely nothing. Nationwide, 85 percent of all television households (and 63 percent of households below the poverty line) already have cable or satellite service.

What will become of households that do not? Leaving aside such eccentric alternative pastimes as conversation and reading, the digitally deprived could pursue happiness by buying a new television set, all of which will be digital-capable by March 2007. Today a digital-capable set with a flat-screen display can be purchased from -- liberals, please pardon the mention of your Great Satan -- Wal-Mart for less than $460. But compassionate conservatism has a government response to the crisis.

Remember, although it is difficult to do so, that Republicans control Congress. And today's up-to-date conservatism does not stand idly by expecting people to actually pursue happiness on their own. Hence the new entitlement from Congress to help all Americans acquire converter boxes to put on top of old analog sets, making the sets able to receive digital programming. All Americans -- rich and poor; it is uncompassionate to discriminate on the basis of money when dispersing money -- will be equally entitled to the help.

The $990 million House version of this entitlement -- call it No Couch Potato Left Behind -- is (relatively) parsimonious: Consumers would get vouchers worth only $40 and would be restricted to a measly two vouchers per household. The Senate's more spacious entitlement would pay for most of the cost -- $50 to $60 -- of the converter boxes. But there is Republican rigor in this: Consumers would be required to pay $10. That is the conservatism in compassionate conservatism.

Now, the hardhearted will, in their cheeseparing small-mindedness, ask: Given that the transition to digital has been underway for almost a decade, why should those who have adjusted be compelled to pay money to those who have chosen not to adjust? And conservatives who have not yet attended compassion reeducation camps will ask: Why does the legislation make even homes with cable or digital services eligible for subsidies to pay for converter boxes for old analog sets -- which may be worth less than the government's cost for the boxes?

Gattuso says defenders of this entitlement argue that taxpayers will not be burdened by its costs because the government's sale of the analog frequencies will yield perhaps $10 billion. Think about that: Because the government may get $10 billion from one transaction, taxpayers are unburdened by government's giving away $3 billion with another transaction. Such denial that money is fungible fuels the welfare state's expansion.

What oil is to Saudi Arabia -- a defining abundance -- cognitive dissonance is to America. Americans are currently in a Founding Fathers literary festival. They are making bestsellers out of many biographies of the statesmen who formulated America's philosophy of individualism and self-reliance and who embodied that philosophy -- or thought they did -- in a constitutional architecture of limited government. Yet Americans have such an entitlement mentality, they seem to think that every pleasure -- e.g., digital television -- should be a collective right, meaning a federally funded entitlement. Clearly, Americans' civic religion of reverence for the Founders is, like most religions, more avowed than constraining.

georgewill@washpost.com


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