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Tuesday, May 1, 2001

Cutting Off Subsidies Restricts Freedom?

Just Because Something Is Constitutional Doesn't Mean It Should Be Subsidized

One of President George W. Bush’s first acts on taking office was to end taxpayer subsidies to private organizations that provide abortion services overseas. The bellyaching was predictable and deafening. What is sadly emblematic of our time is the fallacy that underlay the protest.

Typical was the New York Times editorial of January 24, which said, “It is a form of arrogance to impose a gag rule on doctors and health advocates in other countries as the price of receiving vital assistance for its poorest and most defenseless citizens, particularly its women, especially when it involves an activity that is constitutionally protected in the United States.” (Emphasis added.)

Let’s start by pointing out that this is not an article about the moral status of abortion. It’s about taxpayer funding of abortion (and by implication, of anything else). One’s position on abortion per se logically should have no bearing on one’s position on the matter I am about to discuss.

In the 1980s President Reagan adopted what came to be known as the Mexico City policy; it barred taxpayer subsidies to Planned Parenthood and other groups that do abortion counseling abroad as a method of family planning. It was already contrary to law for those organizations to use tax money for abortion. But since money is fungible, the Reagan administration extended the policy to bar subsidies altogether.

That policy was reversed by President Clinton. Now the reversal has been reversed. In doing so, Mr. Bush said, “taxpayer funds should not be used to pay for abortions or advocate or actively promote abortions either here or abroad.” It is puzzling why he included the word “here,” when his order affects only activities abroad. The federal government still subsidizes domestic family-planning clinics that offer abortion counseling and services (Clinton reversed Reagan’s ban on that), and Medicaid still pays for abortions. Moreover, foreign aid still goes to governments that pay for abortions.

Nevertheless, the policy stops the flow of taxpayer money to private abortion counselors and practitioners in foreign countries.

This is a good thing. Why? Because some of the people whose money finances those activities believe abortion is murder. Whether we agree with them or not on that question, we should be able to agree that people ought not to be forced to pay for what they regard as murder. It is ironic that abortion-rights advocates (properly) object to having other people’s religious views forced on them, but they think nothing of forcing their moral views on others through compulsory financing. As Thomas Jefferson famously said, compelling people to finance causes they disagree with is “sinful and tyrannical.”

Proponents of taxpayer funding of abortion, such as the Times, obfuscate by fusing the freedom to do something with taxpayer funding. They argue that withdrawing subsidies is equivalent to banning abortions. Notice how the editorial invokes the constitutionality of abortion—as though if something is constitutional, it ought to be subsidized. A similar argument is made by those who say that failing to subsidize a particular artist is “censorship.” Of course, that’s absurd. Lots of things that are unsubsidized are done legally every day. The issues are entirely separable. The Times knows that, but its political agenda depends on not acknowledging it.

It doesn’t take much intellectual candlepower to see that there’s a huge gulf between stopping someone from doing something and abstaining from lending a hand—or from forcing others to do so. In a society widely touted as free, that should be a rather elementary distinction. What are we to make of those who are determined not to see it?

The idea that the withdrawal of subsidies constitutes a “gag rule” is ludicrous. No one is stopped from promoting abortion by Mr. Bush’s order. Those who today promote abortion can continue until they run out of breath. They just can’t have the taxpayers’ money if they do so. That rule violates no one’s freedom.

As for those who are concerned about government’s attaching strings to the money it gives away, welcome to the real world. It has always done so. What would you expect? Let no one forget my colleague Beth Hoffman’s favorite quotation from a U.S. Supreme Court opinion, “It is hardly lack of due process for the Government to regulate that which it subsidizes” (Justice Robert H. Jackson in Wickard v. Filburn, 1942). You don’t like the rules? Don’t take the subsidies.

Why Abortion?

Some might ask why start with subsidies for abortion? Mr. Bush has his reasons. But as advocates of limiting government power, we need not care what his reasons are. The point is, he chose the issue, and we must seize opportunities to roll back government as we find them. Had he picked art subsidies, we could have jumped on that issue.

The Bush policy provides a news hook to point out that it’s wrong to force people to finance what they disapprove of. There are many more examples besides abortion, but we have to start somewhere. We should be ready to up the ante by showing that opponents of abortion are not the only people who deserve to have their sensibilities—not to mention their rights—respected. It has always been part of the classical-liberal, or libertarian, case that big government necessarily violates freedom of conscience. Here is an excellent example.

It has been pointed out that through selective subsidies, government can be highly manipulative and that it should not have the power to carry out a particular moral agenda by banning subsidies to particular activities, as Mr. Bush has done. Clearly, the best solution is to end all subsidies of private activities. No one has a right to other people’s money without their consent. But it does not make sense to say that no subsidies should be ended until all subsidies can be ended. That is a blueprint for perpetual subsidies.

Libertarianism, or true liberalism, as Jeffrey Rogers Hummel reminds us, is simply a plea for consistency. No one believes that a woman personally has a right to force her neighbors to pay for her abortion. No private group of women can have rights not possessed by any of its members. Thus no nation of women (and men) can legitimately vote to force their neighbors to pay for abortions. When it comes to other people, all we have a right to do is try to persuade—no more. If we fail, that’s too bad. But basic civility dictates that we not resort to force.

  • Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families and thousands of articles.