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Some Real Reaching Out


With President George W. Bush having now taken office, theres a lot of talk about his reaching out to the opposition. The logic is this: the presidential race was so close that Bush owes some consideration to the people who voted for Al Gore. Naturally, that means embracing major parts of the Democrats legislative agenda.

This is noteworthy for a couple of reasons. First, much of Bushs campaign was (unfortunately) already an exercise in reaching out. True, he campaigned for an across-the-board income tax-rate cut. He also pushed partial privatization of Social Security. On the other hand, he did not call for a reduction in the federal budget. On the contrary, he would increase current spending and add billions in new spending.

One of his costly ideas is to pay for the prescription drugs for some elderly people, a classic me-too move, aping the Democrats, but scaling down the program. He also plans to spend lots of money on public schools. Where Republicans used to say the federal government has no constitutional role in education and used to call for abolition of Department of Education, Bush believes there is a huge role for the feds. He even picked a public-school superintendent as secretary of education! His form of school meddling will differ from what the Democrats would do, but it is meddling just the same.

When Bush said he was a uniter, not a divider, that was a signal that his philosophical differences with the Democrats are not terribly sharp. Otherwise the statement makes no sense.

The other interesting aspect of the reaching out imperative is that Democrats are never expected to do it. Only advocates of smaller government (or people perceived to be such) are expected to be seized by the spirit of reconciliation. To use the unsatisfactory vernacular, people on the right are supposed to move left. But no one on the left is ever called on to move right. The Democrats and the dominant news media have rigged the game very nicely in that regard.

In the spirit of reconciliation, I suggest that this would be a good time for the avowed peacemakers such as minority leaders Daschle and Gephart to show their bona fides and make a real peace offering. I have the perfect gesture for them, and it concerns an issue that generates much polarization: abortion.

That seems like an unpromising issue on which to find common ground: either a woman has a right to terminate a pregnancy or she doesnt. But there is one aspect of this explosive issue that cries out for agreement by the adversaries: taxpayer funding.

Bush has already made a move on this issue, but it is hardly adequate. He has stopped tax funding only of organizations that do abortion counseling abroad. But what about domestic tax-funded counseling and the funding of abortion by Medicaid?

Surely, whatever position one takes on abortion, one can agree that it is wrong to force a person to pay for someone elses abortion. Compelling the financing of what someone finds immoral is itself immoral. How can anyone who favors freedom of conscience support tax funding of abortion? Ive never heard a good answer to that question.

Even if one believes in the right to have an abortion, it does not follow that there is a right to have it paid for by someone else. That idea makes a mockery of rights. I have a right to worship at the religious center of my choice. But surely this cannot mean the taxpayers should pay for my transportation and other expenses related to the exercise of that right. It simply means that no one should be permitted to forcibly impede that exercise. The moment you start forcing people to shoulder the burden of other peoples rights, you have crossed the line and have violated the rights of those you have forced.

As to the argument that without tax funding, poor women would be unable to get abortions, there is an easy answer. The affluent pro-abortion activists should be perfectly free to raise voluntary money to assist them.

The most basic mark of civility is abstaining from using force against people merely because you cannot persuade them to your point of view. Ending compulsory financing of abortion would go a long way toward defusing this controversy and restoring civility. It is something that all people of goodwill should be able to rally round.

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.