George Will

     Remember, although it is difficult to do so, that Republicans control Congress. And today's up-to-date conservatism does not stand idly by expecting people to actually pursue happiness on their own. Hence the new entitlement from Congress to help all Americans acquire converter boxes to put on top of old analog sets, making the sets able to receive digital programming. All Americans -- rich and poor; it is uncompassionate to discriminate on the basis of money when dispersing money -- will be equally entitled to the help.

     The $990 million House version of this entitlement -- call it ``No Couch Potato Left Behind'' -- is (relatively) parsimonious: Consumers would get vouchers worth only $40, and would be restricted to a measly two vouchers per household. The Senate's more spacious entitlement would pay for most of the cost -- $50 to $60 -- of the converter boxes. But there is Republican rigor in this: Consumers would be required to pay $10. That is the conservatism in compassionate conservatism.

     Now, the hardhearted will, in their cheeseparing small-mindedness, ask: Given that the transition to digital has been under way for almost a decade, why should those who have adjusted be compelled to pay money to those who have chosen not to adjust? And conservatives who have not yet attended compassion re-education camps will ask: Why does the legislation make even homes with cable or digital services eligible for subsidies to pay for converter boxes for old analog sets -- which may be worth less than the government's cost for the boxes?

     Gattuso says defenders of this entitlement argue that taxpayers will not be burdened by its costs because the government's sale of the analog frequencies will yield perhaps $10 billion. Think about that: Because the government may get $10 billion from one transaction, taxpayers are unburdened by government giving away $3 billion with another transaction. Such denial that money is fungible fuels the welfare state's expansion.

     What oil is to Saudi Arabia -- a defining abundance -- cognitive dissonance is to America. Americans are currently in a Founding Fathers literary festival. They are making best-sellers out of many biographies of the statesmen who formulated America's philosophy of individualism and self-reliance, and who embodied that philosophy -- or thought they did -- in a constitutional architecture of limited government. Yet Americans have such an entitlement mentality, they seem to think that every pleasure -- e.g., digital television -- should be a collective right, meaning a federally funded entitlement. Clearly, Americans' civic religion of reverence for the Founders is, like most religions, more avowed than constraining.

George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
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