A winning issue

Posted: May 24, 2002 12:00 AM

Considering how closely divided both Houses of Congress are, and the fact that this is an election year, Democrats and Republicans alike are ready to give away vast amounts of the taxpayers' money -- current and future -- to buy votes in crucial states that can determine who controls Capitol Hill next year and who controls the White House after the 2004 election.

Yet both parties seem to be overlooking an issue that millions of voters can readily understand and respond to. That is the pestering of telemarketers repeatedly phoning us and interrupting whatever we are doing. It doesn't matter whether we are sick, sleeping, eating dinner, making love, or whatever. Those who have fax machines also find their paper being used up printing advertisements from people they never heard of, selling things they don't want.

It doesn't matter if you have an unlisted number. Telemarketers can buy your phone number from other businesses that you give it to. They also have machines which can simply dial all possible phone numbers, which will include the unlisted ones.

Some states allow you to put your phone number on a list of numbers that telemarketers are forbidden to call. That is fine for people in those states. Some private trade organizations also provide an 800 number that you can phone to have your number put on a list that members of that particular trade association are told not to phone. But there are so many trade associations that you cannot possibly contact all of them to get your name removed from their lists.

A more fundamental question is: Why should you have to fight off people who want to intrude into the privacy of your home? Why shouldn't they be restricted to phoning people who indicate that they don't mind being phoned?

There are probably enough people who are sufficiently fed up with being harassed by telemarketers that there should be some serious votes out there for whichever political party decides to make this an issue and pass national legislation to stop those who pester us with unwanted phone calls.

Is this a better issue for the Democrats or the Republicans? Either party should be able to grab this issue and run with it, perhaps picking up enough votes to capture a closely divided Congress. Either party would of course stand to lose campaign contributions from the telemarketers. But the bottom line on Election Day is votes.

Democrats love to use government to do all sorts of things, so they might have fewer inhibitions about passing federal legislation to get the telemarketers off people's backs. On the other hand, liberals who are willing to stop private businesses from pestering the public tend to want to make an exception for telephone solicitations from "non-profit," political and other "good causes."

If Democrats don't understand that people who don't want to be bothered -- by anybody -- have every right to be left alone, then the Republicans have a golden opportunity to seize the issue and vote for a blanket prohibition against phoning people who don't want to be phoned. Unfortunately, there are some Republicans who have a knee-jerk resistance to using government, especially to rein in businesses.

Only an anarchist should be against government. The real question is not how much power government should have but what it is allowed to use that power for. Stopping some citizens from pestering other citizens is one of the most legitimate roles of government.

Telemarketers will claim that they are providing a service, employing people, and paying taxes. But what is fundamentally wrong about blanket telemarketing is that it gives some people the power to impose high costs on others at low costs to themselves.

Waking up a sleeping baby or interrupting dinner or disturbing someone who is sick is not a small thing. But those who think that it is have the option of letting their phone numbers remain available to the telemarketers. Nor does it matter how much of a "good cause" may be involved. Each individual can decide whether or not to remain a target for what others call good causes.

Both political parties are overdue to show more respect to the ordinary citizen, as distinguished from special interests. The party that does so by banning telemarketing could reap some crucial votes this November.