One of the delights of teaching at this IHS seminar this week has been getting acquainted with Jonathan Fortier, a specialist in romantic English literature who is a fellow at Liberty Fund. Jonathan and Jason Clemens of the Fraser Institute in Canada have written an article in the current Fraser Forum about government spending on culture in Canada. Their argument to “Liberate the Arts from the Culturecrats” is forceful and compelling. First they address the question of who gets to say what’s good culture and what’s not, deflating some cherished elitist sacred cows along the way:
[Canadian author Margaret Atwood] suggests that the market does not reward “artistically excellent” culture, but only that which is “marketable.” Who is to judge what is “artistically excellent”? Should we rely on the opinions of the culturecrats or some other self-appointed authority? In the past there were many self-appointed experts who laughed at writers like Shakespeare and Shelley, or derided painters like Titian and Van Gogh. … There is no guarantee that the market will always recognize artistic talent (it rewarded Shakespeare during his lifetime, but not Shelley), but there is still less of a guarantee that a committee of culturecrats will recognize excellence when it appears.
Jonathan and Jason do something here that is really important, but that many people (including well-trained economists) fail to do – they fail to commit the Nirvana fallacy. Instead of comparing the recognition risk that artists face in markets with some idealized notion of artist recognition, they compare their risk in markets with the risks they face in government committees.
Not surprisingly, the article is extremely well written and entertaining while making very important substantive points about markets and culture. One of my favorites:
H.L. Mencken said that a Puritan is a person who fears that someone, somewhere, is having a good time. Is it possible that a culturecrat is a person who fears that someone, somewhere, is buying and enjoying cultural experiences that the elite did not formally approve in a committee meeting? What it comes down to is that the culturecrats believe that we, as private individuals in the marketplace, will make the wrong decisions with our money.
I recommend it to your consideration.