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Should the Government Bail Out Newspapers?

Mises Daily: Wednesday, January 14, 2009 by

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What started last year as something of a joke from the "tongue & check" department at Business Week, and a supposedly outlandish column by Michelle Malkin, has now become a reality: the state of Connecticut is seriously considering a rescue package for The Bristol Press. Can the nation's premier junk-bond newspaper, The New York Times, or The Chicago Tribune—already in bankruptcy court—be far behind?

With a private property-based economy, each person is ultimately the judge of the truth. Particular newspapers and other information services, particular schools and universities, and even particular artists and entertainers are supported or not supported depending on their ability to secure an audience. To be sure, one's "audience" need not constitute a majority and might only be a few. As John Stuart Mill taught, consideration of alternative ideas should neither be limited by the tyranny of the government nor by the tyranny of an overly orthodox social majority.

The intellectual elite have always hated the marketplace of ideas and have desired government support for the arts, entertainment, and news media. Because they are dissatisfied with the size of the audience that their chosen media gain in the marketplace, they have sought the official sanction of the government, its imprimatur. With the silly notion that the expression "freedom of the press" refers only to newspapers and not to other media, they have gradually chipped away at the separation of information and state through such organizations as the NEA, NEH, PBS, and NPR.

Of course, the real assault on freedom of thought — and its counter parts freedom of speech and freedom of the press — began with public schools and state universities. Initially, it was thought that local control would be a sufficient safeguard against the use of public schools for political indoctrination, and that "academic freedom" would likewise undergird state universities. But, with the increasing centralization of education, we are seeing those protections erode.

The assault on freedom of thought is seen in environmental politics. Those who oppose the enactment of the "command and control" of the economy in order to save the earth are described as "deniers," even though there is no consensus within the emerging field of climatology that human activity contributes to harmful global warming. The equivalent retort would be to describe the advocates of carbon-regulation as "alarmists;" yet, it is antithetical to freedom of thought to describe either side in such pejorative terms.

This assault is also seen in redistributionist politics, where, e.g., opposition to national health insurance is viewed as immoral, and we are told that we who are productive "owe" this, among other things, to others. It is seen in interest-group politics, where, e.g., you are called a racist, anti-Muslim, a sexist and/or a homophobe unless you follow the left-wing agenda on whatever issue is at hand.

Government support of newspapers — even more so than government support of industries — undermines political freedom because it means that there is little independent information available to people with which to form opinions. Without freedom of the press, along with the panoply of other civil liberties, democratic government loses its legitimacy.

It is almost inevitable that once the government starts picking out which industries to support, it will start picking which newspapers to support. One thing follows the other: Hayek called this the road to serfdom. Promising ethanol subsidies in Iowa and bailing-out the heavily unionized automobile industry of Michigan, almost every Congressman and Senator is scurrying about to secure pork-barrel spending for their district. Whole cities, and soon entire states will be kept afloat only because of various federal programs. All of these things remove the force of the marketplace to direct human action to the service of others, and replace it with the coercive power of the state. All of these things deny the true desires of people — as revealed in market prices — and substitute the opinions of the elite and politically-powerful for the true desires of people.