TCS Daily

No Big Government Vindication

By Pejman Yousefzadeh - August 15, 2003 12:00 AM

Like the dutiful son that I am, I recently called my parents in Illinois to ask about them and see how things are going on their end. My sister answered the phone, and appeared quite annoyed at having to talk at that particular moment. Her voice brightened when I identified myself, and she apologized for being brusque, saying, "I thought you were one of those telemarketers. We've already had three of them call this evening."


Just about everyone I know is glad about the existence of the "do not call" website that will enable people to list their phone numbers on a list of numbers that telemarketers cannot call. My sister was delighted when I told her about the site, and expressed the wish that it had existed earlier.


The "do not call" list has also prompted a new argument in the age-old ideological battle between liberals on the one side, and conservatives and libertarians on the other: Is the advent of the "do not call" list -- a list that was brought about by government regulation and legislation -- an instance where the conservative/libertarian desire to reduce the "nanny-state" takes a backseat to the desire of much of the general public to be free from telemarketing calls? Additionally, doesn't the advent of the list disprove the general conservative/libertarian argument that government regulation and legislation causes more problems than it solves?


A number of right-of-center pundits appear to believe that the "do not call" list undercuts their general arguments about the role of government in society. In a post over at National Review's blog, Jonah Goldberg expresses unease with the fact that government made it possible for people to remove their phone numbers from the reach of telemarketers. And in another post, Goldberg searches for ways to reduce telemarketing that have nothing to do with the government, and follows up on the issue again here by appearing to agree that the "do not call" list represents a form of intrusion by the "nanny state."


Recognizing Goldberg's discomfort, liberal blogger Kevin Drum, says:


The fact that Goldberg even bothers writing about this shows the ridiculous lengths to which conservative ideology goes in its efforts to deny that there is any legitimate form of human decision-making other than free market forces. Yesterday's exchange is just a micro example of the bankruptcy of this view, and a rather desperate attempt to avoid the obvious conclusion that the easiest, best, and cheapest way to deal with this problem is, indeed, the ossified bureaucracy of the federal government.


To which I respond: Not so fast. Contrary to Goldberg's angst over the issue, and contrary to the implications of Drum's triumphalist statement, libertarians and conservatives can take pride in the creation of the "do not call" list, and should hope that the program thrives and prospers. After all, it can serve as the model for a whole host of favorite conservative/libertarian policy programs.


Conservatives and libertarians needn't feel discomfited by the creation of the "do not call" list merely because the list involves the participation of the federal government. Indeed, Goldberg falls into the trap of thinking that the efficacy and appeal of the list -- and the fact that the creation of the list stems from the passage of legislation on the federal level -- undercuts conservative and libertarian arguments about the proper size and role of government. But the mere presence of government participation in the creation and maintenance of the list does nothing to refute the arguments made by conservatives and libertarians on this issue.


What should make the "do not call" list ultimately palatable to conservatives and libertarians -- indeed, what infuses the program with conservative and libertarian values -- is the fact that the decision whether to make one's phone number inaccessible to telemarketers is ultimately left up to individuals. I may just as easily decide to rid myself of irritating telemarketer phone calls, as I may decide to take advantage of offers that are made through telemarketing, and allow telemarketer phone calls to be made to my home. The power and presence of individual choice helps trump any lingering concerns over the presence of government in the creation and maintenance of the "do not call" list.


In fact, the structure and organization of the "do not call" program is in many ways similar to the general structure of the school voucher program, and the plan to allow the private investment of Social Security money -- both programs that are extolled and ardently advocated by so many conservatives and libertarians.


The government would be present as a participant in any voucher program, as the vouchers would be funded through government appropriations. However, the choice of whether or not to participate in a voucher program would remain with individuals.


Similarly, individuals would have the choice of deciding whether or not to keep their Social Security investments as they currently are, or deciding to privately invest them in the hopes of achieving a higher rate of return.


In both programs, the government is active and present as a participant. But the ability and liberty of the individual in making his/her own decisions regarding education and investment makes both programs fully compatible with conservative and libertarian principles. Likewise, the "do not call" program honors conservative and libertarian principles by emphasizing the importance and preeminence of individual choice and liberty.


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