It's hard to quarrel with the free-speech sentinels who have decried the recently revealed arrangement under which the federal government was covertly working with the networks to boost the quotient of anti-drug material in their entertainment programming. Yet somehow one wants to quarrel with them. Their rhetoric is so uninflected, so full of a knee-jerk suspicion of anything authored by government; so certain that Big Brother represents the greatest danger we will ever face.

The deal (disclosed in salon.com), in which the networks earned back advertising time they owed to the government for public service announcements by demonstrating that particular episodes of their shows had advanced anti-drug themes, was "reprehensible beyond words," thundered Andrew Jay Schwartzman, president of the nonprofit Media Access Project. Merrill Markoe, a former lead writer for "Late Night with David Letterman," called the deals "a horrifying slap in the face of freedom of speech."

Can it really be so alarming to think that Uncle Sam is undermining the creative integrity of "Sabrina the Teenage Witch"? I know, I know, that's not the point. The point is the Thin Edge of the Wedge. Today, "Beverly Hills 90210"; tomorrow, the world.

Of course it should make us uncomfortable to think of the government spending our own money to influence us secretly. While the propaganda in question here was distinctly benign, and the networks hardly had to be coerced to trade their artistic sovereignty for money, the deal crossed a line that does indeed disturb.

But I wish my fellow liberals could at least entertain the possibility that there might be gradations of harm in this realm. It makes some difference, for example, that in most cases the government was rewarding after the fact shows that were produced in blissful ignorance by writers and directors and producers who had never heard of the arrangement. That the networks could deliver the goods without telling the people who actually make the shows is ample testament to the modesty of the whole deal.

The truth is that most of these shows would be producing pretty much the same episodes anyway. Think about it: Any public relations cause for which a majority-Republican Congress will earmark $1 billion over five years is bound to be almost exactly congruent with the social attitudes that make sense to the suits at the networks, who aren't looking to create fare that will repel the big advertisers.

Drug use, you may have heard, is frowned on these days; lately it is one of the few uncontested zones in our perennial culture wars. Should the government ever want to undertake mind control on a more controversial topic, we may be sure that the networks' larger self-interest would exert a balancing pressure.

Clearly, advance script consultation, which happened in a few cases, is a more sinister practice than a network's sending in a tape of a show, after the fact, for government credit. And of course the episodes in question should have carried some sort of notice indicating that the show was aired in cooperation with the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

But few have noted the irony that this entire collusion is an example of the flexible, smart government we all claim to want. Originally, the ONDCP was assigned a $1 billion budget to create anti-drug public service ads. Lest this look like a taxpayer-funded bonanza for the networks (and for newspapers such as The Washington Post, which will earn $181,366 in advertising revenue from the ONDCP this fiscal year), Congress stipulated that any media outlets that accepted the ads would have to donate a matching amount of advertising time or space--in effect, to sell their ads for half price.

When the program began, in 1997, the networks were happy to get this reliable money stream. But as their ad revenues from other sources--especially free-spending Internet companies--rose over the past two years, they began to grumble. So the ONDCP agreed to credit anti-drug program content instead.

In doing this, the drug office was acting on extensive research showing that a message embedded in a program is of much greater efficacy than a message that is pitted against the rest of the ad clutter on TV. Your tax dollar at work! One almost pities the air of baffled pride with which the ONDCP greeted the sudden tempest over its good works.

Most of all, it seems myopic not to see this controversy in the context of the other, more powerful forces that shape the state of popular entertainment. The First Amendment advocates' hyperbolic reaction to a small, highly technical threat of government coercion invites an irritated counterreaction: It must be nice to play defense all the time, to slap back the unseen hand of the feds and then sleep your blameless sleep. I'd feel more sympathetic if I saw anyone on my side exerting a tenth as much passion over the violence and the sex and the lust for goods that the iron fist of the market insistently pounds into the lives of my children.

Apples and oranges, you say. Perhaps. But it's short-sighted--no, it's culpably naive--for liberals to enter the 21st century loudly arguing that the biggest threat to our freedoms of mind comes from the most stable democratic government on the face of the earth.

It's the market, stupid.