Why the Federal Government Should Not Fund Art


If the federal government did not fund art, there would be no art, right? Obviously no one believes that.

American households regularly spend an average of two to three thousand dollars per year on entertainment, or around 5 percent of household spending. This includes spending on things like pets and sporting events, which aren’t art (if you believe Maryl Streep), as well as on arts including television programs, movies, and music. North Americans (mostly in the United States) spent more than $11 billion in 2016 on movies at the box office alone.

But to hear some people tell it, America’s artistic landscape would be devastated if the federal government did not subsidize the arts. An example of this approach comes from Neil deGrasse Tyson, whose collectivist premises I have examined before.

The background is that, on March 16 and 17, numerous news outlets published stories to the effect that Donald Trump’s proposed budget sought to defund the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), among other things. Fox News carried one such report.

On March 19, in a string of political Tweets generally lamenting budget cuts, Tyson wrote, “We can all imagine a land that provides no support for Art. But is that a place you’d want to Live? To Visit? To Play?”

Here Tyson equates our “land” with the federal government and ignores all art funding that does not come from the federal government—which seems odd coming from a man who purports to uphold reason and the scientific mindset.

On March 22, Tyson released another string of Tweets to the effect that the budget for the NEA and NEH is a trivial portion of the total federal budget. For example, he wrote, “Cutting the NEA & NEH to save money on a $3-trillion budget is like thinking 1/3-inch is long relative to a football field.” I take it that his point is that cutting those budgets would be a petty and pointless thing to do, given their relative inexpensiveness and the benefits that result from the spending.

We might take Tyson’s remarks in a different way: Given how slight the budgets for the NEA and NEH are (around $300 million) out of a total budget ($3.54 trillion), is it worth spending any time to discuss them? Maybe we should talk about entitlement spending instead, which consumes the major part of the federal budget. Even the Department of Agriculture, at 4% of the budget, is vastly larger than the NEA and NEH: Perhaps we should talk about cutting that.

My answer is that art funding presents a relatable way to discuss underlying principles. Most people don’t want to get caught up in the boring details of Social Security liabilities or agricultural subsidies, but art is visceral. Yet, because the stakes are relatively small, we can discuss the principles without people excessively hyperventilating about the imagined consequences of cutting the programs. This is especially true given that everyone realizes that art existed prior to 1965, when the NEA was created. Eventually, we can apply the principles under review to other areas. The discussion here applies directly to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with its $445 million budget, and indirectly to many other programs of much greater expense.

So what’s wrong with the federal government (or any government) funding the arts? I’ll review three of the major problems.

1. Subsidies Entail Force

Rephrasing Tyson’s remarks to cut through the euphemisms will make the point: “We can all imagine a land in which the government declines to seize people’s wealth, or threaten to lock people in cages, if they do not provide support to the art that bureaucrats deem worthy. But is that a place you’d want to live? To visit? To play?”

My answer is, yes, that’s a place I’d like to live, visit, and play—a place where people are free to finance a given art project, or not, by choice. Government has no proper business taking people’s wealth by force for such purposes.

Anyone who thinks I’m being hyperbolic when I talk about government threatening to lock people in cages is welcome to evade federal taxes and instead send a letter to the Internal Revenue Service explaining why.

As the IRS plainly warns:

It is to those individuals, who deliberately fail to comply with their obligation to file required tax returns and pay any taxes due and owing, that IRS Criminal Investigation devotes its investigative resources. In the most egregious cases, criminal prosecution is recommended to the United States Attorney’s office.

If that is not sufficiently persuasive, the IRS helpfully offers a list of individuals who have been locked in cages for failing to pay the taxes the federal government says that they owe.

True, in cases of slight underpayment of taxes, the IRS likely would take less drastic measures than to lock someone in a cage. For example, the IRS might simply confiscate a portion of a person’s paycheck to pay off the residual.

Whatever euphemisms and evasions may be offered, the obvious fact is that government funds art projects by forcibly taking the money from individuals, either by direct confiscation or by threats of punishment.

2. Art Doesn’t Need Force

As indicated, Americans spend many billions of dollars every year on art and cultural events of their choosing. Why, then, do we supposedly need federal funding of the arts and humanities?

Presumably the answer is that, absent federal funding, not enough of the “right” sort of art would be funded. But “right” by whose standards? Why should government bureaucrats get to decide what is the “right” art for people to fund—or that they should fund such art rather than anything else they might care to buy?

Supporters of tax-funded arts are in a tricky position. They have to argue that the programs are popular—or else there would be no political will to continue them. Yet they also have to argue that the programs are not so popular that they’d be funded voluntarily. Or, alternately, they just have to pretend that voluntary financing is somehow impossible.

Of course art that is popular does not need to be subsidized; people go out of their way to finance it. People buy tickets for movies, plays, and concerts in addition to DVDs, CDs, and streaming content. People often also give charitably to art projects. In the internet age, crowd funding is increasingly popular; I have contributed to the production of a music album and a couple of documentaries this way.

An art project need not have widespread support to get off the ground. Often a small group or a single individual has a particular interest in a project and the resources to finance it.

Sometimes businesses help to finance art for the publicity. The fact that Toyota sponsored a recent “free day” at the Denver Art Museum and parked a couple of vehicles outside did not somehow sully my experience there.

It is foolishness to claim, as a “news” article for USA Today does, that generally a given work “wouldn’t have happened without public funding.” (Lawrence Reed offers a lengthy critique of that article.) In some cases, no doubt, a given project would not have found funding and individuals would have spent their money on other values. In other cases, a project would have proceeded with voluntary funding.

USA Today provides a great example of private financing when it notes that Sesame Street “no longer receives direct government funding” via the Public Broadcasting Service because it inked a deal with HBO, which is funded through subscriptions and sales of DVDs and streaming content. Are we supposed to believe that, at this unique moment in history, this children’s show can thrive by voluntary funding, whereas before it could not possibly have done so? Private contributions and advertisements long have funding most broadcasting.

The only semi-plausible argument for tax funding of the arts (other than arguments resting on overt nannyism or other forms of elitism) is that the projects supposedly are public goods in the economic sense. But in most cases they are not public goods. Rather, they involve works that people must pay to read, see, or hear, things like books, ticketed events, and movies. And plausible cases of public goods, such as a television broadcast, usually are financed through advertising.

Perhaps we are to believe that a more artistically literate society is itself a public good. But, because so much art already is voluntarily funded or readily could be so, there’s not much reason to believe that cutting the subsidies would reduce artistic literacy.

If we’re going to entertain such fantastic applications of public goods theory, we can notice that practically anything that people might spend their money on instead would also provide a public good. For example, maybe if people got more massages, they’d be happier overall, and we’d all be better off for it. Or maybe if people spent more money tutoring their kids, or helping people in extreme poverty, or improving their diets, or enjoying time with friends at the coffee shop, those things would provide as substantial a public good. There’s no reason to think that the things the NEA and NEH spend money on provide an especially impressive public good. Indeed, the sensible presumption is that things that can attract voluntary funding are the very things that provide the greatest external benefits.

Notice that I have been responding to a common argument about public goods, not arguing that public goods justify forced wealth transfers—I don’t think they ever do (but that’s a complex topic for another day).

Art that people value will be funded voluntarily. The attitude that “real” art requires tax subsidies stems from the pretension of elitists who think that they uniquely know what is worth funding—and that they should be able to finance their pet projects by taking others’ wealth by force.

3. Subsidized Art is Politicized Art

Generally, we should not expect subsidized artists to be the best artists; rather, we should expect subsidized artists to be the best at filling out the appropriate bureaucratic forms to secure tax funding. This helps explain why some people legitimately fear that many projects funded by the federal government would not be funded voluntarily.

Subsidized art is inherently politicized art. There’s no getting around that.

Or perhaps it strikes you as a curious coincidence that the NEH facilitates grant searches based on congressional district and that the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies brags that NEA money is distributed by congressional district as well as by population density.

Tax subsidies for art and cultural products tend to go to people who are not too successful—because it is harder to justify subsidizing artists already earning plenty of money—but not completely unknown.

So, for example, a software developer working on his first science-fiction novel on the side probably would have zero chance of getting a subsidy, even on the off chance that it occurred to him to apply.

On the other hand, a painter working with an established “arts residency program” and whose projects include “re-constructing the narratives that took place within late 19th century and early 20th century West African ethnographic photography taken mainly by French colonialist” can share a $10,000 subsidy to display works “to the public alongside narratives about the artists’ creative process” (NEA grant 17-7200-7002).

There’s nothing wrong with the “art residency” project, but it is wrong to force the software developer (or anyone else) to help subsidize the “multidisciplinary artist” if he does not wish to do so.

Of course there is also the problem of forcing people to finance works that they disapprove of, a blatant violation of their rights. The classic example is the moral obscenity of forcing Christians (and others) to subsidize “Piss Christ.”

On a personal note, after I complete a number of nonfiction works under development, I may try my hand at fiction. I already have the start of plot lines for two stories. Although I do not necessarily begrudge people who take NEA and NEH subsidies, for the same reasons I do not begrudge Ayn Rand for having taken Social Security, I would never apply for such a subsidy because I’d feel morally dirty doing so.

If my fiction is any good, I won’t have to rely on confiscated money to finance it. I’d rather make nothing than get a subsidy. And if I make more than nothing I will have earned it.

As artist and gallery owner Quent Cordair recently noted, self-respecting artists “give value for value.” Get coercion out of the arts.

Update: Twitter users looking for Jacob Sullum’s critique of Nicholas Kristof should see the article at Reason. My recent Tweet that Kristof retweeted linked to Sullum’s piece as well as to mine.

Image: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra

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