Government Art in Wichita

Do we really want government art in Wichita?

David Boaz, in his recent book The Politics of Freedom: Taking on The Left, The Right and Threats to Our Liberties writes 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.”

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 thought that perhaps she was going to call for less government involvement in the arts. Anything so important to man’s nature surely, I thought she would agree, 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.

“Government art.” Is this not a sterling example of an oxymoron? Must government weasel its way into every aspect of our lives?

And what about the “investment” in art, which Ms. Holman claims helps “drive the economy” through its economic impact and job creation? She, and Wichita City Council member Sharon Fearey rely on a study from 2007, which I discuss in Economic Fallacy Supports Arts in Wichita. This study tells of the fabulous returns on investment by governments when they invest in the arts. Like most studies of its type, however, it focuses only on the benefits without considering secondary consequences or how these benefits are paid for. Henry Hazlitt, in his masterful book Economics in One Lesson explains:

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 drive much of the desire for government spending on the arts. Either that or elitism. Do newspaper editorialists and city council members believe that the people of Wichita can choose for themselves the art they want to enjoy, and then acquire it themselves? Evidently not, as the City of Wichita government has its Division of Arts & Cultural Services.

(The material by David Boaz is from a speech which may be read here: The Separation of Art and State.)

One thought on “Government Art in Wichita”

  1. I understand the frustration between the government involvement in funding the arts. That is why I have a dream to build a monument that would be built with the donations entirely by donors with not a single dollar being accepted by government.

    Could it happen? I say let’s make it happen and create an example of what can be built by the private sector.

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