Department of History, Arts, and Library

The Michigan Department of History, Arts, and Libraries is one of the most recent additions to state government, having been created under Public Act 63 of 2001. It consolidates the administration of a number of pre-existing state functions and programs. The department’s five main agencies are the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, Michigan Historical Center, Library of Michigan (formerly known as the State Library), Mackinac State Historic Parks, and the Michigan Film Office. In addition, the department oversees the state records management program, demography work, and U.S. Census reporting activities. The department’s mission statement is, "To enrich the quality of life for Michigan residents by providing access to information, preserving and promoting Michigan heritage, and fostering cultural creativity." [1]

Before proceeding into an analysis of each of the department’s main agencies and functions, however, the reader may find it useful to review the following brief explanation of the philosophy undergirding the recommendations made in this section.

Background Philosophy: State and Society

American traditions of law and liberty recognize a fundamental distinction between the activities of government and those of society at large. Since the Colonial Era, the coercive institutions of government have been widely understood to be appropriate to the protection of life and property from criminal violence and fraud. Other concerns, however basic or vital, historically have been addressed by voluntary civil institutions. This theoretical understanding of, and practical distinction between, the different roles of state and society — spelled out in the federal and state constitutions — have been key to unleashing the vibrant cultural and economic life that has flourished in this country since its inception in the 18th century. In other words, America’s Founders understood that while government may serve, in some ways, as the protector of a society’s culture, it is but a product — not the source of — that culture.

What, then, is the source of culture? The word "culture" is derived from the Latin cultus, meaning "care, cultivation, worship," implying that the roots of culture run deep in the human imagination and in human history. In his book, "The Roots of American Order," Michigan-born cultural historian Russell Kirk traced the development of Western culture generally, and American culture specifically, back through the centuries to the societies of ancient Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome, up through medieval London and all the way to America’s constitutional convention at Philadelphia. " [A] nation’s culture," explained Kirk, "is the complex of convictions, folkways, habits, arts, crafts, economic methods, laws, morals, political structures, and all the ways of living in community that have developed over the centuries." [2]

Kirk’s definition helps to make the salient point. Within a free, or civil, society, government is just one of many threads in the broad and colorful tapestry of human life. It has the narrow and limited role of guardian, and when it steps outside of that role, its growth into other spheres of life soon results in an increasingly unfree, or political, society. The difference for the average citizen is this: In a civil society, citizens themselves make the decisions affecting their lives. In political society, government officials make many or even most of those decisions for citizens. The citizen’s judgment about what is in his or her own best interest is supplanted by the judgment of others, who may not have his or her best interests at heart — and may not even know what those best interests might be.

The types of decisions made by bureaucrats in a political society run from the most important — such as where one should (or is allowed to) live, how one’s children are to be educated, or how one is to spend one’s own money — to the most mundane — such as how much water toilet bowls should hold, or how big the holes in Swiss cheese ought to be. (Regarding these last two examples: As humorist Dave Barry might say, we are not making this up.)

But perhaps the most dangerous aspect of a political society is that the state sets itself up as the very definer of a society’s culture rather than as its guardian. In such a situation, there comes to be an "official line" on everything. This official line, instead of being reached by open academic inquiry and consensus, is instead asserted and enforced by a bureaucratic minority operating the coercive machinery of the state. Instead of being open to challenge and revision as new nuggets of truth are gleaned by scholarly prospectors, the government-enforced official line is impervious to new evidence or interpretation. Thus there is the spectacle, in some countries, of a "Ministry of Culture," that may actually criminally prosecute those who hold the "wrong," i.e., governmentally disapproved, opinions. This country is not yet that far down the road to censorship and statism, but the persistence of the phenomenon known as "political correctness" reveals the ever-present danger to intellectual and academic freedom when citizens cease their vigilance.

It is with this information in mind that the reader ought to understand the recommendations made in this section regarding the pruning of Michigan’s proto-Ministry of Culture, the Department of History, Arts and Libraries. For it is precisely because the pursuit of truth in history, art and the humanities is so important to society that it must be kept out of the realm of politics insofar as is possible. Perhaps French economist and statesman Frederic Bastiat summed up this understanding best in his classic 19th-century treatise, "The Law." In the following passage, Bastiat is inveighing in particular against socialism, but his analysis applies to any brand of the statist philosophy, including fascism, communism, or the garden-variety welfarism of modern-day America:

Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all.

We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists say we want no religion at all. We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain. [3]

In short, the Mackinac Center is not recommending budget cuts for the Department of History, Arts and Libraries because it does not want or like art; on the contrary, our reasons are precisely the opposite.