Supporters of government-funded art in Kansas are lashing out at Kansas Governor Sam Brownback for his decision to cancel funding for the Kansas Arts Commission. An example is the Wichita Eagle’s Rhonda Holman in her editorial A state for the arts?
In her editorial Holman makes the claim that eliminating the Kansas Arts Commission exposes Kansas to the risk of losing federal and other funds. Many government art supporters state that the loss of funds in a certainty. But as I wrote earlier this year when I covered a hearing before a Kansas Senate committee, Kansas Legislative Research Department made inquiries to the Arts Alliance and the NEA. The answers from both agencies indicate that it is unclear as to whether the new Kansas Arts Foundation would be eligible to receive grants. In particular, the NEA answered, according to Legislative Research, “the potential exists for Kansas to forfeit its ability to receive National Endowment for the Arts funding depending on how the new entity in structured …”
A related — and more important to public policy — question is why do we send tax money to Washington, only to have to jump through federally-designed hoops to get it back? We shouldn’t argue for the perpetuation of such a system just so we can receive matching grants.
Holman and others make the case that the arts funding that Brownback canceled is small — “minuscule in the context of the state’s $13.8 billion budget,” she wrote. It’s not only a financial matter, although this factor alone is reason enough to cancel this funding. The arguments of supporters of this funding, small amount that it is, illustrate some of the worse aspects of government and public policy.
Government funded arts supporters promote the government funding as an investment that pays off for Kansas taxpayers. They have studies that say it does. But these studies have little credibility, as shown in Arts funding in Kansas. These studies purportedly show that spending on the arts has a magic power that is not present when people spend their own money on the things they value most highly. But these studies, like most, rely on several economic fallacies. Henry Hazlitt, writing in Economics in One Lesson, explains.
Economics is haunted by more fallacies than any other study known to man. This is no accident. The inherent difficulties of the subject would be great enough in any case, but they are multiplied a thousandfold by a factor that is insignificant in, say, physics, mathematics or medicine — the special pleading of selfish interests. While every group has certain economic interests identical with those of all groups, every group has also, as we shall see, interests antagonistic to those of all other groups. While certain public policies would in the long run benefit everybody, other policies would benefit one group only at the expense of all other groups. The group that would benefit by such policies, having such a direct interest in them, will argue for then plausibly and persistently. It will hire the best buyable minds to devote their whole time to presenting its case. And it will finally either convince the general public that its case is sound, or so befuddle it that clear thinking on the subject becomes next to impossible.
The proposed funding for the arts commission is a clear illustration of the problem with many pleas for public funding. A small group of people will benefit powerfully from this spending. What about the rest of us? Government-funded arts supporters make the case that the cost of the funding is just 29 cents per person in Kansas. Who of us will get worked up over such a small cost?
The Public Choice school of economics calls this the problem of concentrated benefits and dispersed costs. It’s a huge problem.
Besides the financial aspects of government funding of arts, there’s the artistic issue itself. There are very important reasons to keep government away from art. Lawrence W. Reed wrote in What’s Wrong with Government Funding of the Arts? of the harm of turning over responsibility to the government for things we value and find worthwhile:
I can think of an endless list of desirable, enriching things in life, of which very few carry an automatic tag that says, “Must be provided by taxes and politicians.” Such things include good books, nice lawns, nutritious food, and smiling faces. 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 are awake to them and 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 of that; 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; others have abandoned their children because until recent welfare reforms, they’d get a bigger check if they did.
The boosters of government arts funding in Kansas make the case that arts are important. Therefore, they say, government must be involved.
But actually, the opposite is true. The more important to our culture we believe the arts to be, the stronger the case for getting government out of its funding. Here’s why. In a statement opposing the elimination of the Kansas Arts Commission, former executive director Llewellyn Crain explained that “The Kansas Arts Commission provides valuable seed money that leverages private funds …”
This “seed money” effect is precisely why government should not be funding arts. David Boaz explains:
Defenders of arts funding seem blithely unaware of this danger when they praise the role of the national endowments as an imprimatur or seal of approval on artists and arts groups. Jane Alexander says, “The Federal role is small but very vital. We are a stimulus for leveraging state, local and private money. We are a linchpin for the puzzle of arts funding, a remarkably efficient way of stimulating private money.” Drama critic Robert Brustein asks, “How could the [National Endowment for the Arts] be ‘privatized’ and still retain its purpose as a funding agency functioning as a stamp of approval for deserving art?” … I suggest that that is just the kind of power no government in a free society should have.
We give up a lot when we turn over this power to government bureaucrats and arts commission cronies. Again I turn to David Boaz, who in his book The Politics of Freedom: Taking on The Left, The Right and Threats to Our Liberties wrote this in a chapter titled “The Separation of Art and State”:
It is precisely because art has power, because it deals with basic human truths, that it must be kept separate from government. Government, as I noted earlier, involves the organization of coercion. In a free society coercion should be reserved only for such essential functions of government as protecting rights and punishing criminals. People should not be forced to contribute money to artistic endeavors that they may not approve, nor should artists be forced to trim their sails to meet government standards.
Government funding of anything involves government control. That insight, of course, is part of our folk wisdom: “He who pays the piper calls the tune.” “Who takes the king’s shilling sings the king’s song.”
Around the country Kansas is being portrayed by government arts supporters as having taken a giant step backwards. For those who value the tenets of classical liberalism — liberty, individualism, skepticism about power, spontaneous order, free markets, limited government, and peace, to name a few — Kansas has moved forward, although I don’t imagine for a moment that all these attributes were motivators for Brownback’s decision. It’s sad and telling that arts supporters, who often claim to express the human soul and condition through their art — a viewpoint that ought to be sympathetic to classical liberalism — are not able to grasp the importance of this decision.