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Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Public Subsidies Tarnish the Arts

"Public Investment" displaces private investment


While visiting Wichita in October, I learned that city government subsidies for the arts is a contentious issue. I’d like to offer a perspective: Don’t do it. Art is too important to be dependent on politicians, and injecting politics into anything inevitably tarnishes it.

Those “studies” that purport to show X return on Y amount of government arts spending are a laughingstock among economists. The numbers are cooked and almost never compared to alternative uses of tax money. Even less frequently do subsidy advocates consider what people might choose to do if their earnings weren’t taxed away in the first place.

What if “public investment” simply displaces a certain amount of private investment? Arts subsidy advocates never raise this issue, but I know that I personally am far less likely to make a charitable donation to something I know is on the dole than to something that depends on the good hearts of willing givers.

And money that comes voluntarily from the heart is more meaningful than money that comes at gunpoint (taxes). For that reason I don’t believe in either arts welfare or shotgun marriages.

If we don’t rob Peter the worker to pay Paul the artist, perhaps Paul may have to become a better artist or a better marketer of his art, or perhaps find another profession entirely. Welcome, Paul, to the real world of willing customers and earning an honest living.

This letter ran in the Wichita Eagle


  • 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 lawrencewreed.com.