As the Kansas Legislature returns to work this week, it’s possible that funding for the Kansas Arts Commission could make it into the budget appropriations bill that will eventually be sent to Governor Sam Brownback. If so, the governor should use his discretion and line item veto power to cancel this funding.
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.”
A few years ago when I read Rhonda Holman’s editorial City can be proud of its arts work in the July 15, 2008 Wichita Eagle — which starts with the stirring reminder that “The arts fire the mind and feed the heart” — I hoped that perhaps she was going to call for less government involvement in the arts. I thought she would argue that anything so important to man’s nature should not be placed in the hands of government.
But my hopes were not realized, because soon she described the City of Wichita’s commitment to permanent spending on arts as “a bold and even brave investment in quality of life.” It appears that even the yearnings of our hearts and minds are subject to government management and investment — and, worst of all, control.
“Government art.” Is this not a sterling example of an oxymoron? Must government weasel its way into every aspect of our lives? Governor Brownback can do the human spirit and all the people of Kansas a favor by vetoing government funding of the arts in Kansas.