What’s Wrong with Government Funding of the Arts?

People who oppose Soviet-style collective farms, government subsidies to agriculture, or public ownership of grocery stores because they want the provision of food to be a private matter of the marketplace are generally not dismissed as uncivilized or uncaring. Hardly anyone would claim that one who holds such views is opposed to breakfast, lunch and dinner. But people who oppose government funding of the arts are frequently accused of being heartless or uncultured. This adaptation of a letter to a noted arts administrator articulates a case in favor of art, like food, relying upon private, voluntary provision.

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June 1, 2003

Dear Sir:

Thanks for the article you sent in which the author laments recent cuts in arts funding by state governments. In my mind, however, the fact that the arts are wildly buffeted by political winds is actually a powerful case against government funding. I’ve always believed that art is too important to be dependent upon politicians, too critical an aspect of culture to be undermined by being politicized. Furthermore, expecting government to pay the bill for it is a cop-out, a serious erosion of personal responsibility and respect for private property.

But those “studies” that purport to show X return on Y amount of government investment in the arts are generally a laughingstock among economists. The numbers are often cooked and are almost never put alongside competing uses of public money for comparison. Moreover, a purely dollars-and-cents return — even if accurate — is a small part of the total picture.

The fact is, virtually every interest group with a claim on the treasury argues that spending for its projects produces some magical “multiplier” effect. Routing other people’s money through the government alchemy machine is supposed to somehow magnify national wealth and income, while leaving it in the pockets of those who earned it is somehow a drag. Assuming for a moment that such preposterous claims are correct, wouldn’t it then make sense from a purely material perspective to calculate the “average” multiplier and then route all income through the government? But isn’t that what they do in Cuba and North Korea? What happened to the multiplier in those places? It looks to me that somewhere along the way it became a divisor.

What if, for instance, “public investment” simply displaces a certain amount of private investment? (Arts subsidy advocates never raise this issue, but I know that I personally am far less likely to make a charitable contribution to something I know is on the dole than I am to something that I know rests upon the good hearts of willing givers). What if “public investment” brings with it some baggage like political manipulation that over time erodes the integrity of the recipient institutions? How does that fit into the equation? What if I, as a taxpayer who earned the dollars in the first place, could keep what the government would otherwise spend on the arts and invest it in my kid’s college education and end up getting twice the return on my money than the government would ever get on the arts?

In the early 1990s, Michigan Governor John Engler secured major reductions in state grants for the arts. If those who opposed those cuts had been heeded, the Detroit Institute for the Arts (among other institutions) would probably be weaker today, with a smaller private endowment and a more politicized offering, the alleged multiplier notwithstanding.

If one put defense spending up against arts spending and judged them purely on their supposed “economic return,” it’s entirely possible that somebody’s study will show a higher dollar return from the latter than from the former. That may well be because a big part of the return on defense spending — keeping our freedoms and independence — isn’t very measurable in dollars. But if given the choice on how to spend scarce resources, I’d err on the side of remaining free and independent, even with all the ghastly inefficiencies at the Pentagon.

In any event, if simply getting a good return qualifies an activity for public investment and government involvement, then I can think of lots of companies and industries that government “should” have spent tax money on — from silicon chips to Berkshire Hathaway. The Founders could have dispensed with all that rigmarole about rights of citizens and duties of government and simply ended the Constitution with a Preamble that said nothing more than, “We the People, in order to get a high return on our tax money, establish this Constitution to do whatever anybody can show will fetch a hefty payback.”

Sometimes, those of us who put faith in such things as the individual, private property, the marketplace, etc., are accused of being focused solely on dollars and cents. But I think that usually, it’s those on “the other side” who are more guilty of this. The arts funding issue is a case in point. Public funding advocates are focused on dollars — more of them, always more of them, and no matter how much public funding of the arts we have, it will never be enough for some. Those of us who wish to nurture the arts privately stress many other, and far more important values. I believe, for example, that money that comes voluntarily from the heart is much more meaningful than money that comes at gunpoint (which is ultimately what taxes are all about). You’ve won so much more when you convince people to do the right thing, or support the right causes, because they want to instead of because they have to. For that reason, I don’t believe in shotgun marriages either.

I can think of an endless list of desirable, enriching things in life, of which very few carry an automatic tag that says, “Must be provided by taxes and politicians.” Such things include good books, nice lawns, nutritious food, and smiling faces. A rich culture consists, as you know, of so many good things that have nothing to do with government, and thank God they don’t. We should seek to nurture those things privately and voluntarily because “private” and “voluntary” are key indicators that people are awake to them and believe in them. The surest way I know to sap the vitality of almost any worthwhile endeavor is to send a message that says, “You can slack off of that; the government will now do it.” That sort of “flight from responsibility,” frankly, is at the source of many societal ills today: many people don’t take care of their parents in their old age because a federal program will do it; others have abandoned their children because until recent welfare reforms, they’d get a bigger check if they did.

Speaking of welfare reforms, that whole ball of wax has its applicability to the issue of arts funding. After decades of throwing $5 trillion at various forms of public welfare, a Democratic president finally ended the federal entitlement to it, in 1996. Why? Because the evidence was overwhelming that public welfare weakened private institutions that historically worked to change lives for the better, eroded the work ethic and destroyed families, produced intergenerational dependency and other harmful social pathologies. We even changed the name of Michigan’s welfare department to the “Family Independence Agency.” Now, having said all that, you can understand why I’m a little skeptical when anyone argues that making the arts ever more dependent upon government will somehow have different, more beneficial effects; that putting mothers on the dole is bad but putting artists on it is good. This is why I think we ought to change the name of the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs to the “Artists Independence Agency” with the goal of phasing itself out and encouraging art and artists to broaden their base of support and stand on their own feet.

Now, I know that art is just about everything to some people, especially those whose living derives from it. But as adults, we have to resist the temptation to think that what we are individually doing is somehow the greatest thing since the proverbial first loaf of sliced bread and that therefore it must receive more than what people give it willingly (that is, that it should also get some of their money unwillingly through taxes).

I think what my church does is important, but I don’t want government giving it money. I think what we do at the Mackinac Center is important, but we’d go out of business before we’d take a nickel of somebody’s money against his will. I might even like certain nongovernment-funded art forms more than the ones that are politically well connected enough to get a grant, but I don’t want to corrupt them with a government check. On and on. As children, we want what we want and we want it now, and we don’t care where it comes from or even if somebody has to be robbed for us to get it. But as discerning adults who put a higher premium on mutual respect and building a culture that rests upon creativity and persuasion over coercion, we should have different standards.

True, some people if left free and alone will not place a high value on art. Or they may only go to Ted Nugent concerts. Well, that’s what living in a free society is all about. It would bother me to no end to dragoon somebody (or their tax dollars) to a concert or a museum they’d rather pass on, even if the alternative is that they’ll just sit on their porch and smoke a joint or read one of those dime store romance novels.

There are many other reasons why I am critical of a formal subsidy role for government when it comes to the arts, but a very important one that I can’t end without mentioning here is this: I am serious about this thing we call the Constitution. I don’t see where the Founders (or those who have amended it nearly 30 times since) in either letter or spirit intended for art to be a function of the federal government and I have similar reservations about it being a state function as well. To put it bluntly, if I were to concede that art is a legitimate function of government under the Constitution, I think I would have to take the Constitution and tear it up into little pieces. Why? Because if reading either the spirit or the letter of the Constitution can give rise to the view that art is a legitimate function of
government, then I guess anything that anybody really wants or thinks is good should also be a function of government. The whole purpose of a Constitution is to say that some things are provinces of government, and other things are not.

When some people hear me say that, they think I must be denigrating the arts or somehow assigning them an unimportant role. Not at all. I think child-rearing is pretty darned important. But that’s a parental responsibility first and foremost. I think reading good books is pretty darned important, but that doesn’t mean it’s a government function to make us do it. Making sure there’s food in the grocery stores is important, but as we know, there’s always less of it in places where the government says it will grow it and stock the shelves for us (North Korea being one good example). As I said earlier, lots of things are critically important in life and sometimes all we do is endanger or trivialize them when we turn them over to the government.

This notion that government has to support the arts is a relatively recent one in America. I know of no evidence that art was not valued in the days when it was not regarded as a government function, and I know of even less evidence that suggests Americans would value it less if the government got out of it or if government weren’t taking so much from us as it now does in taxes. With government at all levels consuming something in the neighborhood of 42 percent of all that we earn, it’s amazing to me that Americans are still as generous as they are to the arts and so many other worthwhile endeavors. Just think how supportive we might be if government took only half what it now does from us! I think in such an environment, great institutions like the very one you manage would be stronger and better.

For further reading on this subject, let me suggest these two great works of privately-funded literature:

  1. “Subsidies to the Arts: Cultivating Mediocrity” by author Bill Kaufman:


  2. “Ten Good Reasons to Eliminate Funding for the National Endowment for the Arts” by Laurence Jarvik:



Lawrence W. Reed
Mackinac Center for Public Policy