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Saturday, March 25, 2017

Government Funding Cheapens the Arts

There must be a separation between art and the state

Quite often while waiting for a flight at an airport or walking through a hotel lobby, I’ll pick up a copy of USA Today. I’m slightly entertained and occasionally informed by it, though it’s rare that I spend more than a few breezy minutes with it. But after browsing this past Tuesday’s print edition (March 21), I felt propagandized and misinformed by it. It may be a while before I ever buy another.

Can you imagine the damage to our way of life if rich Hollywood directors couldn’t reach into your pocket uninvited?Here’s the gist of the story that turned me off: For many years, a thief has been regularly robbing homes across the country and then spending much of the loot in stores at various shopping malls. He’s not a completely selfish fellow; he donates a substantial portion of the stolen money to what he regards as worthy causes. In any event, he’s been getting away with it and remains at large.

In a nearly full-page article on March 21, USA Today reported its findings after presumably checking in with the businesses and charities that benefited from the thief’s “generosity.” Lo and behold, every single one of them proclaimed the thief to be a public benefactor! All had become so dependent upon the bandit that in unison they expressed real fear he might find honest work and leave them in the lurch.

From the headline to the last word, the reporter endorsed the robber’s work and the unanimous verdict of his beneficiaries. No mention was made of the forgotten folks whose money was taken or the businesses and causes they might have chosen to spend it on. Like the magician’s trick or a children’s fairy tale, only wonderful things resulted from the thief’s behavior.

This is journalism?

To be honest, I’ve employed some literary license here in describing the offending story. The central message of it, however, is precisely as I’ve laid out in the above analogized version of it.

Written by the newspaper’s Andrea Mandell, with three additional writers noted as contributors, the article easily consumed three-quarters of the front page of the “Life” section. “Public funding helped boost these 10 great cultural works” blared the headline. After a few paragraphs explaining that President Trump’s proposed budget would eliminate taxpayer subsidies for four arts-related agencies, the rest of the article spotlights movies, plays, exhibits and TV shows that might not have materialized (or might disappear) without government funding. They included The Color Purple, “Sesame Street,” Driving Miss Daisy, the King Tut Exhibit, and the Indie film, Reservoir Dogs. Item #10 was a catch-all, labeled “Major Film Directors.”

Oh my gosh, can you imagine the damage to our way of life if rich Hollywood directors couldn’t reach into your pocket uninvited? What could any of us possibly spend our own money on that would be more important? We’re selfish and mean-spirited just for thinking it. Shame on us.

Even a half-hearted attempt at objectivity would require a mention or two of the many government-funded arts horrors.Welcome to the world of diffused costs and concentrated benefits, the welfare state’s primary means of propulsion. Take a little bit from a lot of people and give it to a few people whose votes and allegiance the perpetrators thereby purchase without ever spending a nickel of their own. Sell the whole thing to everybody as a worthy cause no decent person could oppose. Lather, rinse and repeat—endlessly. You ultimately get the costly contraption Frederic Bastiat brilliantly described as “the great fiction through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everybody else.”

Even a half-hearted attempt at objectivity would require a mention or two of the many government-funded arts horrors. One of my favorite examples, now two decades old and succeeded by many more questionable cases, was the $1,500 federal grant for a one-word “poem.” It read, “lighght.” That’s it. But by its deliberate cherry-picking, the USA Today article was intended, I’m sure, to make the reader believe that government funding always favors the best.

Truth be told, government funding cheapens the arts by frequently paying for stuff that can’t find willing supporters, usually for good reason. Moreover, government funding is prone to political correctness and cultural elitism. It encourages artists and arts institutions to focus on pleasing the bureaucracy instead of patrons, weakening their connections to the local community as well as their long-term viability. To our “progressive” friends who join us libertarians in denouncing business handouts, I pose the question, “Why should we expect arts welfare to be any better than corporate welfare?”

If Mandell thought this through, she would surely understand that her underlying argument for government funding of the arts could be used to justify absolutely anything: Don’t question where the money comes from. Ignore the preferences of those we take it from. Never consider the people who go unpatronized because their customers’ money was diverted to a government project. Let the bureaucrats spend it while we assume it’s all for a good cause. If those are your premises, how can the outcome be anything but good?

This is Bastiat’s old “broken window” fallacy, writ large in service of a political agenda. Ms. Mandell would do herself and her readers an immeasurable service by getting acquainted with it.

As writers, reporters, journalists of any kind, we must not only think but we must also be thorough in our thinking. Anything less is not so much an article as a travesty. 



See also: “What’s Wrong with Government Funding of the Arts?” by Lawrence W. Reed, Listen, NPR, the Market is Already Saving PBS” by Jay Stooksberry, The Pro-Art Case for Defunding the National Endowment for the Arts” by Daniel J. Mitchell, and Art Needs No State Subsidies” by Bruce Edward Walker.

  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is