James O’Keefe Shocked to Learn Goods Are Fungible

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Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

In September of 2012, a video emerged on YouTube of a poor black woman announcing she had received a free “Obamaphone,” prompting widespread conservative outrage. It turned out there is no Obamaphone and that the phone in question is part of the Lifeline program, dating back to the Reagan administration, in which phone companies give free telephone service to indigent customers who need a telephone for things like contacting emergency services or setting up job interviews. But, having gotten themselves angry about the Obamaphone, conservatives weren’t going to let the fact that there is no Obamaphone get in the way, and it has remained a live issue on the right, even prompting House Republican calls to eliminate the once-uncontroversial three-decade-old program.

The still-lingering whiff of poor black people, viral video, and false accusations against Obama inevitably attracted James O’Keefe, who has produced his latest quasi-journalistic enterprise. It’s an exposé showing that poor people can get discounted phones, which are presented as “Obamaphones,” even if they admit they plan to sell them and possibly use them to buy drugs:

I’m not really sure what this adds to the store of public knowledge about the Lifeline program. In a free market economy, it is possible to sell or exchange goods and services for other goods and services. You can take your free phone and sell it. You can do this with any government benefit. You can do it with money of any kind. Moreover, the task of preventing people from buying drugs falls on law enforcement, not on other social service agencies, who are not in a position to ensure that any benefits are not ultimately transferred toward illicit ends.

If you give money to, say, James O’Keefe, he might use it to commit burglary or other legally questionable behavior. And yet, now that he is off probation and can travel without permission from a judge, a U.S. attorney, and a probation officer, we generally let O’Keefe have stuff, out of the perhaps naïve assumption that it will not be used to finance illegal activity.

Now, if your particular concern is that poor people might take a public benefit and convert it into cash, then your problem isn’t with the Lifeline program, it is with any public benefit of any kind. Retirees can spend their Social Security checks on contraband. But the prospect of middle-class retirees misappropriating funds does not frighten O’Keefe, for reasons that are self-evident.