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{Published in the Colorado Springs Gazette, March 16, 2011}

The House has voted to cut off federal funding to Planned Parenthood, a group I enthusiastically support. Both my parents did volunteer work for Planned Parenthood, and in the course of my life I have personally benefited from their services. There is no question in my mind Planned Parenthood performs a valuable and important function.

Still, while I hate to agree with social conservatives about anything, I think they’re right on this one. You shouldn’t have to support an abortion provider as a condition for living in America. Even if I disagree with your views on abortion, I shouldn’t force you to support mine.

Government should be about those things that people must do collectively. The word “must” is important. It’s not “should” or “could” or “compassionately”, but “must.” This is a “public goods” argument, that government should provide those things for which equal access is both efficient and necessary. National defense, a system of justice, and clean air are public goods. Pap smears, HIV tests, and condoms are not. Nor, dare I say, are abortions.

All these things may be very much valued by their recipients and are passionately argued for by their supporters. I might even put some of them into the category of Very Good Things. That does not mean all Americans should be forced to pay for them.

Arguments for subsidizing organizations like Planned Parenthood revolve around “externalities”: Costs that individuals inflict on others without compensation. Without condoms and abortions provided by Planned Parenthood, so the argument goes, there will be more unplanned pregnancies, more children born into poverty, and more sexually transmitted diseases. This in turn means more costs to society. John Kerry used this argument in a recent op-ed, writing the subsidy “saves taxpayer dollars in the long run”.

These arguments have more holes than Swiss cheese. They assume without a subsidy, services disappear. They assume the morality and efficacy of an extensive welfare state to begin with. They ignore the role of personal responsibility and choice in life, and the long-term social effects of insulating people from the consequences of their behavior. Perhaps most arrogantly, they assume that it is morally acceptable to force others to subsidize such services. The end, to them, justifies the means.

Couldn’t these arguments apply to any government program imaginable? Government must feed, clothe and house people, because otherwise they’ll be on the street mugging citizens and stealing food to survive. Government must create jobs for the unemployed, because otherwise they’ll go on welfare which costs the taxpayer more. Smoking should be banned, because otherwise society gets stuck with treating lung cancer.

Anybody see a common theme here? Is there any government activity that ultimately couldn’t be justified in the name of reducing “social costs”?

But even if I grudgingly support cutting off federal funding to Planned Parenthood in theory, I still grit my teeth in practice. Let’s not kid ourselves. This wasn’t done as some sort of fiscal responsibility measure, or out of some newly energized conservative vision about government is for. If only that were true.

This is a bone tossed to the arch-social conservatives in the Republican Party, a group still stinging from the refusal of the Tea Party to embrace their top-down, big government, social engineering agenda.

After all, this proposed cut will “save” around $300 million, a trifle of a pittance of a jot of an iota in a budget of trillions. If budget-balancing and fiscal responsibility were driving the train, why not kill the $50-$100 billion spent on corporate welfare? Subsidies to businesses distort the market, add to the deficit, and are anti-capitalist to boot. House Republicans ought to be able to find bipartisan support for gutting them in the Senate.

That’s an impact over a hundred times greater than stripping the lousy $300-ish million that Planned Parenthood gets.

But instead, Republicans wasted precious blood and treasure on a purely symbolic measure that has no chance of becoming law. In the meantime, the fiscal train wreck that is the national budget looms ominously in our future. How many more missed opportunities must we endure?


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