The Arts: Too Important to Depend on Politics

Art is one of the things that makes life enjoyable. Rare indeed is the person who derives no pleasure from any music, painting, theatre, literature, poetry or other art form. Great art is more than just a diversion from our everyday travails; it can uplift our spirits and deepen our thoughts.

Artists, of course, cannot produce or perform without financial sustenance. Individuals who appreciate their efforts provide that support, by purchasing works, buying tickets and making donations to organizations. There is a market for art and those artists who succeed the best in providing others with the kind of art they desire will thrive; those who produce art that satisfies very few will of necessity soon find something else to do. In this respect, art is no different from any other occupation.

A free market in art is just as important and beneficial as a free market in other goods and services. Free markets provide people with the optimal amounts of the vast assortment of goods and services by balancing the demand for each against the demand for the others. Art is important, but so is food, clothing, housing, vacations, cars, insurance, personal hygiene and grooming, etc. What keeps us from having too much of any of these things? Our ability to determine and change our spending. If a person feels that he is spending too much on "A" and would benefit from more of "B" instead, he will simply adjust his spending pattern. The free market allows each person to make his own decisions according to his own values and circumstances.

Alas, in art as in many other fields, some people want to override or at least supplement the personal decision making of the market with political decision making. A proposal currently in the state legislature would allow for the establishment of "cultural districts." The board of a "cultural district" would be empowered to submit to the voters of the district a proposal for a tax upon all non-exempt real tangible personal property of up to 1.5 mills. If approved, such a tax could remain in place for up to 10 years. The board would then allocate the funds raised by this "arts tax" to any "cultural organization" (the definition of which is extremely broad) that is located within the district.

The "arts tax" envisioned by the supporters of this idea would mean that a majority of those who vote would impose their wishes on not only the minority who voted against the tax, but also the always large number of people who did not vote. People wouldn't just be "taxing themselves" for something they wanted; they would also be imposing taxes on everyone else for things they may not want at all, or want less than something else.

The only way to ensure that we get the right amount of art and the kinds of art that people really want is to allow individuals to decide how to spend their own money for it. If you think that a certain artist or group merits greater support, you can "tax" yourself by increasing your support; you can also try to convince others to do the same. But just as you wouldn't want your preferences forcibly overridden if other people could take away some of your money and have the government dole it out to their favorite uses, you shouldn't think that you are entitled to have the government subsidize your favorite things, no matter how important you regard them to be, by taking money away from others.

Throughout most of our history, we left arts funding entirely to individual choices. America has a great history of artists, musicians, poets, writers and dancers who succeeded without ever obtaining a dime from government and would have been shocked at the suggestion that they were entitled to one. Recently, as government funding for the arts has been reduced, numerous organizations have found that they were able to make up the loss of funds by going to individuals and private organizations and making the case that they should increase their support. In 1980, WKAR-TV (Lansing's public TV station) raised $811,000 from non-governmental sources. In 1995, the station raised $2,119,000 from nongovernmental sources--more than two and a half times as much. The Detroit Institute of Arts has raised $105 million from contributors in just the last five years.

Are private contributions "enough" to sustain the arts, though? Asking the question that way implies that there is some absolute level of need for art to which "adequate" revenues must be obtained, if not from contributions then from taxation. But there is no more an absolute level of need for art than there is an absolute level of need for, say, sports. Instead, the level of arts, sports, and everything else must and will adjust to the amount that people desire to spend on them.

Just because something is "good" doesn't mean that it must be supported by government. The arts are very important, but they belong within the domain of voluntary individual and social action, not the domain of politics. Indeed, the arts are far too important to be dependent upon government.