Culture And Government Spending

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.


7 thoughts on “Culture And Government Spending

  1. I suppose this argument would be more compelling if the US really had a serious problem with culturecrats. Unlike France, gov’t support/management of culture is pretty marginal and seems to consist mostly of FCC regulation of ‘indecency’ on radio and broadcast TV.

    What’s wrong with having a modest public subsidy for the arts in order to promote things like muesuems, operas, ballet etc.? Even at its height the NEA was trivial when compared to the billions that are spent directly or indirectly trying to protect certain sectors of the economy from competition.

  2. NEA support for “muesuems, operas, ballet etc.” is not and has not been the issue, as I am sure you know very well. The issue is “art” such as the “Piss Christ” and the “Dung Virgin”, as well it should be. I have no problem with “artists” creating such “art”; I also have no problem with people viewing or buying this “art”. I do have serious problems with being required to pay for such “creations”.

  3. That you could even ask the question, “What’s wrong with having a modest public subsidy for the arts in order to promote things like muesuems, operas, ballet etc.?” is astounding. This is the crux of the problem. “Why not just a little for ‘what I want?'” Thus it never ends and the Federal budget is trillions.

    Hardly, the Federal Budget is Trillions because of:

    1. Interest on the debt.
    2. Social Security
    3. Medicare / Medicaid
    4. Defense

    Eliminate those items and your’re left with a fraction of the budget. It is a mountain made from several huge rocks, not millions of little pebbles.

    The issue is “art” such as the “Piss Christ” and the “Dung Virgin”, as well it should be. I have no problem with “artists” creating such “art”; I also have no problem with people viewing or buying this “art”. I do have serious problems with being required to pay for such “creations”.

    How does this differ from the fact that your public library had to spend your money to stock books you may not like (such as Michael Moore’s _Stupid White Men_ or Ann Coulter’s _Treason_)? The ‘offensive art’ contraversy is old news and it was stretched even then. In some cases, the ‘offensive art’ wasn’t even funded by the gov’t. The museum displaying it had happened to receive funds for a totally different display and right wing theorists assumed they used the money for the questionable art.

  4. 1. Interest on the debt.
    2. Social Security
    3. Medicare / Medicaid
    4. Defense

    Eliminate those items and your’re left with a fraction of the budget. It is a mountain made from several huge rocks, not millions of little pebbles.

    This is selective choosing of the facts to make a non-existent point. Fact is, the remaining fraction is more than a third of the budget, discretionary spending is no little pebble. To quote a Heritage report,

    “‘Discretionary’ spending voted on each year by Congress has jumped 39 percent in just three years, and mandatory (mainly entitlements) spending tops 11 percent of the Gross Domestic Product for the first time ever. . .In 2004, federal spending is projected to reach $2.294 billion, with a budget deficit of $477 billion. . . . Spending outside of defense and 9/11 expenses is increasing 5 percent annually. From 2001 through 2004, discretionary outlays are projected to have leaped 39 percent, from $649 billion to $900 billion. Excluding defense and 9/11-related costs, discretionary spending increased 16 percent from 2001 through 2003. ”
    That Social Security and Medicare only worsen the situation is irrelevant, it actually is just the furthering of the principle of taking from those who have earned it to give to those who haven’t.
    If an artist can’t make it in the free market, too bad. I fail to see why artists should be treated any differently than any other profession. This goes for ADM and the rest of the corporate welfare gang. They should all be cut off from Federal funds. Libraries are typically funded locally, by State budgets and are, therefore, a different story.

  5. “What’s wrong with having a modest public subsidy for the arts in order to promote things like muesuems, operas, ballet etc.?”

    It’s theft.

  6. First, there have been numerous studies done, almost all with the same findings; that there is a direct correlation between arts education and scholastic achievement. Is it a coincidence that along with decreased spending for arts programs in our public schools, that national averages have fallen in reading and arithmatic?
    Second, subsidizing your local symphony, opera, or ballet, with state or federal funding allows those who CAN’T afford to spend 100 dollars on a ticket, so they can bring their families to introduce them to things other than Twista and/or Moby (though it should be noted that i also like both of the aforementioned).
    It’s a crime to consider arts just for the rich. I’m not rich, but gimme Beethoven’s quartet #132 and i’ll match you up with anything the Beatles ever accomplished. They’re of equal importance.
    It now costs over 200 dolars to bring a family of four to a baseball game in most cities these days. Does that mean baseball is now for the rich as well?
    Gov’t funding is necessary for the arts becuase it’s a vital form of expression and invaluable source of communication between cultures, as well as being an emotional connection that’s all too rare. It’s necessary, becuase people don’t come out in droves and pay the symphony players millions of dollars a year as we do our baseball heroes, so in order for these institutions to survive, adn to allow the people who give us these invaluable gifts to continue doing so without worrying how they’re going to feed their respective families (and they most all do, have families they too need to support), there needs to be a source from which to provide for these things, and who else should be responsible for making htese thigns available to their citizens, than the government we put our faith, trust, and money in?
    Peopel may complain that they didn’t sanction their tax dollars to go for the arts, so they don’t feel that it’s a necessity. Well, I didn’t sanction my tax dollars to allow for our sitting president to fly onto an aircraft carrier for a photo op. I did not sanction my tax dollars to go toward programs in churches preaching abstinance when I am neither Christian nor abstinant (not that I morally have anything against either).
    Point is, we live in a society that allows us to nto agree with everythign we have a part in, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t tolerate or learn to appreciate what others deem important.
    To act otherwise is completely ignorant.

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