Kansas may be ready to restore some state funding for the arts. But for reasons economic, human, and artistic, we ought to keep Kansas government out of art. Kansas should allow people themselves to decide how to spend their own money on what they think is important to them. To implement government funding of art is to override the freedom of individual choice with political and bureaucratic decisions.
It’s puzzling as to why artists — generally a group of independent minds and free spirits — would want to reintroduce government control over the funding of their craft. Perhaps it springs from the prevailing attitude taught in our (government controlled and funded) schools and universities that government is a force for accomplishing good. While government does some good things for us, when government expands too much — like deciding which artists to spend someone else’s money on — it overreaches and tamps down individual freedom and liberty.
The economic case for government art funding
Supporters of government art funding make the case that government-funded art is good for business and the economy. They have an impressive-looking study titled Arts & Economic Prosperity III: The Economic Impact of the Nonprofit Arts and Culture Industry in the State of Kansas, which makes the case that “communities that invest in the arts reap the additional benefit of jobs, economic growth, and a quality of life that positions those communities to compete in our 21st century creative economy.”
This report, however, is full of the same problems that fill most other reports of similar type. As an example, the report concludes that the return on dollars spent on the arts is “a spectacular 7-to-1 return on investment that would even thrill Wall Street veterans.” It hardly merits mention that there aren’t legitimate investments that generate this type of return in any short time frame. If these returns were in fact true and valid, we should invest more — not less — in the arts. But as we shall see, these returns are not valid in any meaningful economic sense.
Where do these fabulous returns come from? Here’s a passage from the report that government art spending promoters rely on:
A theater company purchases a gallon of paint from the local hardware store for $20, generating the direct economic impact of the expenditure. The hardware store then uses a portion of the aforementioned $20 to pay the sales clerk’s salary; the sales clerk respends some of the money for groceries; the grocery store uses some of the money to pay its cashier; the cashier then spends some for the utility bill; and so on. The subsequent rounds of spending are the indirect economic impacts.
Thus, the initial expenditure by the theater company was followed by four additional rounds of spending (by the hardware store, sales clerk, grocery store, and the cashier). The effect of the theater company’s initial expenditure is the direct economic impact. The subsequent rounds of spending are all of the indirect impacts. The total impact is the sum of the direct and indirect impacts.
The fabulous returns erroneously attributed to spending on the arts derive from this chain of spending starting at the hardware store. But there’s a problem with this reasoning: Most spending induces the same rush of economic activity. What the authors of this study fail to disclose — and what government art supporters fail to see — is that anyone who buys a gallon of paint for any reason sets off the same chain of spending. There is no difference — except that a homeowner buying paint is doing so voluntarily, while an arts organization using taxpayer-supplied money to buy the paint is using someone else’s money. Money, we might add, that is taken through the government’s power to tax.
The study also pumps up the return on government spending on arts by noting all the other spending that arts patrons do on things like dinner before and desert after arts events. But if people kept their own money instead of being taxed to support the arts, they would spend this money, perhaps on restaurant meals, too. Most importantly, people would spend their own money on the things they value — not on what someone else values.
This report — like most of its type that attempt to justify and promote government “investment” — focuses only on the benefits without considering secondary consequences, how these benefits are paid for, and what people would do if left to their own devices. The report, however, seems to make sense in promoting taxation and government spending on arts. This is characteristic of many arguments for government spending, as explained by Henry Hazlitt, in his masterful book Economics in One Lesson:
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 them 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.
It is, as Hazlitt terms it, “the special pleading of selfish interests” that drives much of the desire for government spending on the arts. Government-funded arts advocates promote their case with these economic fallacies.
The human and artistic case
Besides the economic aspect of government funding of arts, there’s the artistic issue. 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 Rhonda Holman of the Wichita Eagle wrote an editorial (City can be proud of its arts work, July 15, 2008 Wichita Eagle) which started with the stirring invocation “The arts fire the mind and feed the heart.” I hoped that she was going to call for less government involvement in the arts, thinking that she would argue that anything so important to man’s nature should not be placed in the hands of government.
But 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 bureaucratic management.
“Government art.” Is this not a sterling example of an oxymoron? Must government weasel its way into every aspect of our lives? Governor Brownback and the Kansas legislature can do the human spirit and the people of Kansas a favor by opposing government funding of the arts.