All Commentary
Sunday, December 1, 1996

The Welfare State and the News

News Reporting Has Been Taken Over by Lobbying

In the welfare state, news reporting has been taken over by lobbying that masquerades as news. Nearly every news item in magazines and the papers, or on radio and television, except for something truly earthshaking and unique (a peace agreement between England and Northern Ireland or winners of the Nobel Prize), amounts to featuring some event or situation in which people want something and are asking government to provide it. Editors and broadcast producers appear clearly to be focusing on stories that generate some kind of government action. Indeed, it is a feather in the cap of a news organization if its story provokes some politician to introduce a bill, call a hearing, or promise some kind of reform. If this is related to the demands of some sizable group in our society, success is nearly assured. Pulitzer Prizes tend to be delivered to those who make the news do public service work.

Clearly, in a welfare state the prospects for such news casting are fabulous. Why should reporters, commentators, or producers ever consider that it could be in the public interest to shut the doors of government to all such demands? Doing so would bar a large percentage of their stories from making a difference. The media might even have to explore going after genuine news, maybe some good news.

But so long as the welfare state is the status quo, we can pretty much count on floods of stories about demands for additional government action from day to day, week to week, month to month, depending on the broadcast schedule of the next program, or the issue date of the next publication.

Except for the editors of the few papers and magazines that champion liberty, none of those in charge will encourage truly critical scrutiny of mainstream political affairs. None will raise such questions as, “Why should government deprive the successful of the fruits of their success, or even the fortunate of their good fortune, just because others do not enjoy the same? What justifies such Robin Hoodism? Or who among those who feed off the welfare state so successfully would ever raise the question: Mr. President, if we spend borrowed money our children will have to be taxed to repay, does this not violate the principle `No taxation without representation’?”

Would any such journalist raise the question to some politician or bureaucrat: If in the criminal law it is wrong to punish people unless they have been proven guilty of a crime, why is it right that government regulations may impose enormous economic burdens on people who have done nothing wrong? Isn’t this a kind of prior restraint that has no place in a free society? What about the question: If the 14th Amendment prohibits the unequal application of the law, why are producers prohibited from discriminating, while consumers can do so with total impunity? And why can government regulate every profession but the press, arts, and clergy—is this not a built-in inequality, a state-sponsored discrimination?

When news organizations feed off the welfare state so successfully, why would they ever express even the most natural doubts about it as they deal with the leaders of state on Meet the Press, This Week with David Brinkley, Face the Nation, and the rest? Doing so would take some genuine journalistic integrity, the kind many people seem to praise only when observed in foreign reporters who risk life and limb as they challenge their dictators. When nothing but one’s cushy existence as a reporter is at stake and no firing squad threatens, the courage to challenge the status quo can be readily surrendered.


—Tibor R. Machan

(Dr. Machan is professor of philosophy at Auburn University.)

Why the Anxiety?

For some time, pundits and columnists have busied themselves pondering a puzzle: although Americans are better off than ever before by various measures, they seem discontented; they worry excessively about what the future will bring.

Populists blame multinational corporations for shifting jobs abroad. Ross Perot hears a giant sucking sound that, he claims, arises from jobs being relocated to Mexico, thanks to NAFTA.

Left-liberals blame big companies for downsizing themselves and setting adrift thousands of employees who had anticipated a lifetime of secure employment. Once laid off, these workers are said to be fit for little but flipping hamburgers. Hence the ballyhoo about the disappearance of the middle class.

The facts provide little support for these popular notions. Mexico is not snatching away American jobs wholesale. The gains from trade are mutual, and labor markets are always in flux. As for the demise of the middle class, the claim is sheer hyperbole.

But I too hear a giant sucking sound, which may have to do with the anxieties so many Americans are feeling. It is the sound of governments at every level sucking away our liberties. Day after day, unchecked by so-called contracts with America or bogus revolutions, government grows relentlessly. The Code of Federal Regulations swells, and state and local governments follow suit with new controls of all kinds.

Americans have sound reasons for apprehension. While nearly every country on the planet is turning away from invasive government controls, Americans continue doggedly down the road to serfdom.

—Robert Higgs

Guest Editor

  • Tibor R. Machan is an Emeritus Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Auburn University and formerly held the R. C. Hoiles Chair of Business Ethics and Free Enterprise at the Argyros School of Business & Economics at Chapman University.