To Subsidize or Not to Subsidize

Should Taxpayers Be Forced to Support the Arts?

As a fan of Gilbert and Sullivan, I participate in an Internet e-mail forum known as Savoynet, where everything about the famous librettist and composer of late Victorian comic opera comes under discussion. Recently a forum participant lamented the demise more than 20 years ago of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, which began producing the operas in 1889 under impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte. The participant speculated that had the British government extended sufficient subsidies, the company might have survived. There ensued a discussion of whether subsidies would have done the trick.

I took another tack: “But that [a subsidy] would have meant forcing the taxpayers to do what they would not do voluntarily as theatergoers. Where’s the justice in that? Maybe they had something else to do with their money.”

That didn’t go over well. One respondent wrote: “That is precisely why taxes exist. They permit community expenditure on things that individuals cannot or will not support on their own, but that are necessary or desirable.”

I replied, “‘Necessary or desirable’ by whose standard? The individual should be free to decide what it is necessary or desirable for him to spend his own money on. ‘Community expenditure’ is a euphemism for the larger gang compelling the smaller group to do something its members don’t want to do. Special-interest peddling is not the least bit noble, regardless of how much communitarian crepe paper is draped over it.”

I might as well have been speaking Sumerian.

Another participant wrote this: “Huge subsidies of opera/theatre worldwide are a modern fact of life, and are unrelated to the benevolence of taxpayers. For example, at the splendid Colón Theatre in Buenos Aires, once described by Toscanini as ‘the best theatre in the world,’ the 1995 Government grant was 75 percent. Would it have been reasonable to ask ‘where is the justice in that?’”

To which I replied: “By all means it would have been reasonable. Why should elitist policymakers, with or without Toscanini’s blessing, decide that an individual must spend his money on the Colón Theatre rather than on his family or himself?”

To which he replied: “I would say, Sheldon, that the world would be a poorer place if it were possible for your thinking to be universally applied!”

No space here to elaborate on the irony of this gentleman’s suggestion that a world without coercive subsides would be a poorer place. On the contrary, in more than one way it would be a richer place.

* * *

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—Sheldon Richman

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