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
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."
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.
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.