Vouchers and campaign reform, by Tweedles Dee and Dum

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Every so often, I peruse political Web sites just to see what the party line is on current hot-button issues. This last trip took me to the American Civil Liberties Union and the Heritage Foundation.

Surprisingly, the two organizations hold very similar views on two issues that never stray far from the political spotlight: school vouchers and campaign finance reform. The ACLU of course disagrees with the Heritage Foundation on whether school vouchers or the public funding of political campaigns is desirable or constitutional. But what is most disturbing is the similarity of their reasoning.

The ACLU opposes school vouchers because they transfer public funds to private, religious schools. The vouchers thus violate the establishment-of-religion clause of the First Amendment, the reasoning goes. Taxpayers should not be forced to subsidize religious views they don't endorse. This seems reasonable - until one reads the ACLU stand on public financing of political campaigns. The ACLU advocates public financing because, it contends, it will lower the cost of elections and increase the diversity of political voices that voters hear. Yet "public" financing means "taxpayer" financing. If tax dollars are used to fund campaigns, then my taxes might go into the coffers of a candidate I detest.

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The ACLU takes a similar stand on public funding for the arts. The New York branch sponsored a protest against Mayor Giuliani's attack on the "Sensation" show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Public funding of artists should not come with strings attached, the ACLU argues, because that restricts the artists' right to free speech.

There's something wrong here. According to the ACLU, it's OK for my tax dollars to go to David Duke or to support some art show I really don't like, but it's not OK for those dollars to be used to educate a child at a religious institution. Seems like the political left needs to work on its consistency.

But, so does the political right. The Heritage Foundation takes an equal but opposite stand on all three issues. School vouchers are OK because they promote education and religious freedom. Never mind that they are someone else's tax dollars. Public funding for the arts is bad - especially if it funds controversial stuff. Some sort of decency standard ought to be enforced, the reasoning goes. Better still, just scrap the NEA altogether. Finally, public financing of campaigns is bad because it will take your tax dollars and funnel them into the coffers of your political opponents.

Both organizations insist they are promoting freedom of religion and speech. In fact, they are promoting both freedoms only to the extent that they advance particular causes. The fact is, all three programs - school vouchers, public funding of the arts, and public financing of campaigns - would channel tax dollars to places that individual taxpayers might not like them to go.

The viewpoints of the extreme right and left are bereft of any vision of the public interest. Presumably, we have a government to promote the common good, even if we disagree with it sometimes. More disturbing is the narrow-mindedness of both sides. Other democratic countries help finance religious institutions, fund the arts, and restrict the cost and conduct of political campaigns. Yet democracy isn't falling apart in those places and there is no reason to assume it would here if such programs were implemented.

Because the fate of democracy as we know it is not at stake, perhaps the majority of Americans, who find themselves somewhere between the far right and far left, could ask the interest groups on either end to be a bit more consistent. Under the guise of protecting everyone's rights, they are actually attempting to advance similarly intolerant partisan agendas that threaten everyone's liberties.

*Mark E. Rush is an associate professor of politics at Washington and Lee University, in Lexington, Va.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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