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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

What’s Wrong with Government Funding of the Arts

People who oppose Soviet-style collective farms, government subsidies to agriculture, or public ownership of grocery stores because they want the provision of food to be a private matter in the marketplace are generally not dismissed as uncivilized or uncaring. Hardly anyone would claim that one who holds such views is opposed to breakfast, lunch, and dinner. But people who oppose government funding of the arts are frequently accused of being heartless or uncultured. What follows is an adaptation of my letter to a noted arts administrator that articulates a case for art, like food, that relies on private, voluntary provision. The person to whom I wrote shall remain nameless to protect the innocent.

Dear Sir: Thanks for sending me your thoughts lamenting the idea of cuts in arts funding by state and federal governments. In my mind, however, the fact that the arts are wildly buffeted by political winds is actually a powerful case against government funding. I’ve always believed that art is too important to depend on politicians, too critical to be undermined by politicization. Furthermore, expecting government to pay the bill for it is a cop-out, a serious erosion of personal responsibility and respect for private property.

What Multiplier?

Those “studies” that purport to show X return on Y amount of government investment in the arts are generally a laughingstock among economists. The numbers are often cooked and are almost never put alongside competing uses of public money for comparison. Moreover, a purely dollars-and-cents return—even if accurate—is a small part of the total picture.

The fact is, virtually every interest group with a claim on the treasury argues that spending for its projects produces some magical “multiplier” effect. Routing other people’s money through the government alchemy machine is supposed to somehow magnify national wealth and income, while leaving it in the pockets of those who earned it is somehow a drag. Assuming for a moment that such preposterous claims are correct, wouldn’t it make sense from a purely material perspective to calculate the “average” multiplier and then route all income through the government? Don’t they do something like that in Cuba and North Korea? What happened to the multiplier in those places? It looks to me that somewhere along the way it became a divisor.

What if, for instance, “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 contribution to something I know is on the dole than to something I know rests on the good hearts of willing givers). What if “public investment” brings with it some baggage like political manipulation that over time erodes the integrity of the recipient institutions? How does that fit into the equation? What if I, as a taxpayer who earned the dollars in the first place, could keep what the government would otherwise spend on the arts and invest it in my kid’s college education and end up getting twice the return on my money that the government would ever get on the arts?

If simply getting a good return qualifies an activity for public investment and government involvement, then I can think of hundreds of companies and industries that government “should” have spent tax money on—from silicon chips to Berkshire Hathaway. The Constitution’s framers could have dispensed with all that rigmarole about rights of citizens and duties of government and stopped with a preamble that said only, “We the People, in order to get a high return on our tax money, establish this government to do whatever anybody can show will fetch a hefty payback.”

Sometimes those of us who put faith in such things as the individual, private property, and the marketplace are accused of focusing solely on dollars and cents. But actually, it’s those on the other side who are more guilty of this. The arts funding issue is a case in point. Advocates of government funding focus on dollars—more of them, always more of them—and no matter how much government funding of the arts we have, it’s never enough.

Meaningful Money

Those of us who wish to nurture the arts privately stress other, far more important values. I believe, for example, that money which comes voluntarily from the heart is much more meaningful than money that comes at gunpoint (which is ultimately what taxes are all about). You’ve won so much more when you convince people to do the right thing, or support the right causes, because they want to instead of because they have to. For that reason I don’t believe in shotgun marriages either.

I can think of an endless list of desirable, enriching things, very few of which carry a tag that says, “Must be provided by taxes and politicians.” A rich culture consists, as you know, of so many good things that have nothing to do with government, and thank God they don’t. We should seek to nurture those things privately and voluntarily because “private” and “voluntary” are key indicators that people believe in them.

The surest way I know to sap the vitality of almost any worthwhile endeavor is to send a message that says, “You can slack off; the government will now do it.” That sort of flight from responsibility, frankly, is at the source of many societal ills today: Many people don’t take care of their parents in their old age because a federal program will do it. Most parents these days shirk their duties to educate their kids because government schools are supposed to do that (even though many of them do a miserable and expensive job of it).

What’s Important

I know that art is just about everything to some people, especially those whose living derives from it. But as adults we have to resist the temptation to think that what we are individually doing is somehow the greatest thing since sliced bread and that therefore it must receive more than what people willingly give it.

I think what my church does is important, but I don’t want government giving it money. I think what we do at FEE is important, but we’d go out of business before we’d take a nickel of somebody’s money against his will. I might even like certain nongovernment-funded art forms more than the ones that are politically well connected enough to get a grant, but I don’t want to corrupt them with a government check. As children we want what we want and we want it now, and we don’t care where it comes from or even if somebody has to be robbed for us to get it. But as discerning adults who put a higher premium on mutual respect and building a culture that rests on creativity and persuasion over coercion, we should have different standards.

Lots of things are important in life. Spare us the sanctimonious and self-serving nonsense about taking other people’s money for the art you happen to think they should pay for.

Find a Portuguese translation of this article here.

  • 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