Putting a la carte on the gov’t table

Pols question cable, sat TV providers on consumer needs

“Why should consumers pay for programs they don’t want?”

It’s the familiar refrain in nearly every congressional debate on telecommunications these days. On Wednesday, it was Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) who took the lead, asking yet again why cable and satellite TV providers can’t simply let consumers sign up for only the channels they want. Why not go a la carte, pols ask.

The logic sounds so obvious and fair-minded that, well, maybe it should also be applied to other things — like government.

Why should taxpayers pay for government programs they don’t want? After all, don’t the feds bundle funding packages much like cablers and satcasters do channels? If a la carte subscriptions would be a better deal for everybody, wouldn’t a la carte government?

“If Sen. McCain really believes in a pure a la carte world, then perhaps he can start by unbundling government and allowing us to pick and choose which programs we want to fund as taxpayers,” said Adam Thierer, a senior analyst at the libertarian Progress and Freedom Foundation in D.C. “I’d like to start by opting out of funding FCC regulators this year.”

Indeed, FCC chairman Kevin J. Martin has pushed hard for a la carte, hinting that the agency — with congressional endorsement — might even mandate them. He has urged, at the very least, that cablers and satcasters provide set-top boxes that can block specific shows.

Social conservatives argue that they shouldn’t have to pay for cable or sat channels and programs they consider indecent. A la carte would protect their families from unwanted content and also save them money on their cable bills, they maintain.

A la carte government could deliver similar benefits. “Maybe we could use advanced set-top boxes to let citizens vote on which government programs should stay and which should go,” said one cable industry exec. “This could save consumers a lot more than their cable bill.”

Allowing citizens to pick which governmental programs to fund would amount to “having a vote on every program, which wouldn’t be bad,” said Roger Pilon, a constitutional scholar at the libertarian Cato Institute. “It would give you a more accurate reading of what the people want than an electoral vote every four years.”

It would also be more democratic, Pilon added. “You want a war? OK, here’s the cost. You want aid to families with dependent children? Here’s the cost. Take your pick.”

Iraq, Medicaid, defense, foreign aid, tracking your phone calls, food stamps: Are they so different from “Nip/Tuck,” “South Park” or anything with Paris Hilton in it?

“Manufacturers put packages together that are most efficient for them,” Pilon said. “That’s how business works.” Government does the same, and if it wants to keep working, it has to keep packaging programs: Imagine people opting out of the income tax program.

“No society ever worked that way,” said Stephen Hess, a congressional scholar at the liberal Brookings Institution.

Like the government, cablers and satcasters say they, too, have to keep bundling. Does that mean the industry is undemocratic?

“There’s a big difference,” Pilon said. “You’re forced to have government. You’re not forced to have cable or satellite TV.”

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