In this era of a big-spending Republican administration, the differences between conservatives and liberals have shrunk so much, it's hard to tell who's who.
Take embryonic stem-cell research. President Bush has limited taxpayer funding of this research on right-to-life, not fiscal-conservative, grounds. He's not against all federal financing of the research, but he doesn't want to expand what's already being done. Conservatives generally support him.
Liberals oppose Bush's stance because they like funding what they favor, and they favor stem-cell research.
They often describe Bush's policy as a ban on research. That's not true. Researchers at Harvard, Vanderbilt, and other private institutions already spend millions on this work.
Clearly there's a difference between private and government financing, and someone can logically favor the first while opposing the second.
Many Americans think embryonic stem-cell research is immoral. Federal funding makes them pay for something they regard as murder.
Actor Mel Gibson was one of the few who stated it clearly: "Why do I, as a taxpayer, have to fund something I believe is unethical?"
Yet many conservatives miss the point.
Consider last week's U.S. Senate primary race in Rhode Island between liberal Republican incumbent Sen. Lincoln Chafee and "conservative" Cranston Mayor Stephen Laffey. Chafee accused Laffey of being a "hypocrite" because "He invested in embryonic stem cell research as a member of Wall Street community but now opposes Federal funding."
I would expect a liberal to overlook the difference between private and government funding. But conservatives should understand that there's no hypocrisy when a private investor funds something he doesn't think government should fund. So when I heard George Stephanopoulos asked Laffey about this on ABC's "This Week," I expected a principled explanation of the difference.
I was disappointed. Here's what Laffey said:
"At the federal level I've studied the subject. After $100 million and 10 years of federal money, there are no cures and no human clinical trials, while there are thousands going on with adult stem cells. So I urged the federal government to spend more money on adult stem cells because I want solutions now. My father has Alzheimer's, so no one can get up like Sen. Chafee and tell me I don't care about people."
When Stephanopoulos asked if he had a moral objection to taxpayer funding, he said, "No, I don't. I'm a businessman. It's an economic decision. I want to put money where it works."
Wait a second: That's the conservative case against federal funding? It's not effective? I thought conservatives wanted government strictly limited to what the Constitution prescribes. If Laffey is that clueless, conservatives shouldn't mourn his primary loss to Chafee.
I thought: Why don't they just donate their own money? Many of America's best innovations come from private research. Last year, a private ship reached space twice, inspired by a $10 million "X prize" offered by private investors. A private prize also inspired Charles Lindbergh to fly across the Atlantic. Government force isn't necessary for stem-cell research.
So I confronted the leader of the California campaign, a wealthy housing developer named Robert Klein: "Spend your own money. ... Gates wouldn't even notice it. It's $3 billion out of the -- what -- $40 billion he has?" Klein said, "What we're trying to do is bring the society together."
Bringing society together sounds nice, but government is force. Voluntary contributions to a charity would people together for the public good.
Klein added: "We have to provide this opportunity. If it's the will of the people."
The will of the people can mean tyranny of the majority.
Too bad neither liberals nor conservatives have scruples against forcing people to do things they don't wish to do.