NPR and PBS subsidies are unfair

Poor citizens should not have to pay for programming that primarily benefits wealthier Americans.

Gingold Nichols/SIPA/Newscom/File
National Public Radio's headquarters in Washington, DC, are shown in this file photo. Guest blogger Art Carden writes that NPR and PBS aren't worthy of government funding.

From, courtesy of some friends in my Facebook network:

“Congress must protect NPR and PBS and guarantee them permanent funding, free from political meddling.”

I write this as a frequent user of PBS content: with two kids in diapers, Sesame Street, Sid the Science Kid, Super WHY!, and other PBS programs are big parts of our day-to-day lives. One of our son’s favorite songs is the theme from Hello Mr. Chuck!, which is a local offering.

Just because we benefit doesn’t mean that these programs are worthy of subsidies: the resources could almost certainly be put to even better use somewhere else, and I’m not sure how taxing the poor so that rich college professors can have good children’s programming is consistent with progressives’ theories of social justice. Among the programs I’ve seen on our local station are travel shows that give tips on things to do in exotic, out-of-the-way places. My guess is that in the case of programs like these, the net redistribution of wealth is from the poor to the rich.

Even if we concede the “market failure” justification for subsidies, it isn’t at all clear which market is failing here. One could say that it is important to have an independent, government-subsidized voice to provide alternatives to media outlets controlled by powerful corporations, but (again) it isn’t clear that media outlets controlled by a powerful state are going to be much better.

Nonetheless, I expect that public funding will live on for a couple of reasons. The first is that the benefits are very vivid and very easy to see. Sid the Science Kid is a great show, in my opinion. There are a ton of videos on that bring back memories of my own early childhood. I also get to see directly how much my kids enjoy it. What we’re giving up in order to subsidize Sid and his pals, however, is much more difficult to see.

Second, the old adage “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” is relevant here. Sid, Super WHY, Elmo, and Cookie Monster are known quantities. We can be pretty sure that they will either stand on their own or be replaced with something, but since we don’t know exactly what, a lot of people would probably prefer to stick with the status quo.

Third, this is a classic case of concentrated benefits and widespread costs. I get a lot of benefits from PBS, and the costs I pay are probably a small fraction of my total tax bill. For those who make their living in public broadcasting, there is a lot more on the line. The people who benefit have a pretty substantial set of incentives to make sure PBS and NPR keep getting funded. The incentives facing the people who pay the bills are much weaker.

A tragic irony is that some of the benefit will be frittered away through the political contest over NPR and PBS funding. This site, which was linked by our local PBS station, urges people to write to their Congressional representatives on behalf of public television. This isn’t free. I expect that they will be successful; they have a lot more riding on this than I do. To adopt Mises’s terminology, however, it means that as a society, we are going to be allocating resources to satisfy less-urgent wants at the expense of more-urgent wants.

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