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The Art of Budget Cutting

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The new Republican majority in Congress will have its integrity severely tested when it decides the fate of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The Republicans got elected on one basic promise — to cut the size of the national government. It is difficult to think of another federal program that so richly deserves to be axed. That being the case, the failure of the Republicans to eliminate the NEA would be a clear signal that they will be mere tinkerers and not the revolutionaries they claim to be.

Why should we hate funding the NEA? Let us count the ways. First, the $167 million federal subsidy to the NEA represents a redistribution of wealth from the working classes to the upper middle class and rich. The vast majority of consumers of the operas and classical music concerts and performance art that the NEA sponsors are well-educated, upper-income Americans. It is bad enough for government to redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor, but it is even more despicable for government to take money from the middle class and poor so that the wealthy can more cheaply enjoy the fine (or not-so-fine) arts.

Second, promotion of art, however defined, is no business of government and certainly no business of the allegedly limited national government. Taxing people for the purpose of subsidizing selected artists with public funds necessarily contradicts the primary function of government to protect the right of citizens to dispose of their property as they please. Thus, art promotion cannot be merely added to the functions of government without doing grave harm to its main purpose as understood by Madison, Washington, and Jefferson.

That the national government — supposedly one of limited and delegated powers — does the subsidizing is even more absurd. Article I of the Constitution does not authorize Congress to subsidize the arts. The closest it comes is when it grants Congress the power to “pay the Debts and provide for the Common defence and general Welfare of the United States.” Of course, the term “general welfare” has been stretched and expanded far beyond any meaning that would have been recognized in 1788. (See Buckley v. Valeo , 424 U.S. 1 (1976), where the Supreme Court held that “the General Welfare Clause [is not] a limitation upon congressional power. It is rather a grant of power, the scope of which is quite extensive.”) The only honest meaning that can be ascribed to this term, however, is the literal one: the national government can use its spending power for purposes which tend to benefit all citizens and harm none, defense being the primordial example. Since the NEA seizes the wealth of some to pay for art promotion objected to by many, it clearly fails to advance the “general welfare.” Since the national government is not authorized to promote art, this right and this power remain with the people and the states, as the Ninth and Tenth Amendments mandate.

Third, it is dangerous in a republic to put politicians in charge of promoting the basic ideas and values which constitute the culture. With such power, which they have had since the New Deal, they invariably promote ideas such as these: government is good; big government is very good; and big, big government is very, very good. One only has to think back to the view of government taught in our public high schools: the only presidents (after the Founders) considered great were those who increased the size of the federal government: Lincoln, Wilson, and both Roosevelts. Those who decreased the size of government or fought its expansion, like Cleveland, Harding, and Coolidge, are considered to be failures or fools.

Fourth, and intimately related to the last point, subsidizing artists is wrong because it allows the state to literally buy the political support of an entire class of influential and skilled intellectuals. “Whose bread I eat; his song I must sing,” explains the political behavior of the art and intellectual class since the New Deal first started throwing bread at hungry artists. You could explode a neutron bomb at an artist’s convention and not kill a single libertarian or even a Republican. The virtually unanimous support for big government by the artist or intellectual class since the New Deal largely explains why Leviathan has had a free swim until recent years.

Finally, the NEA should go because, like all bureaucracies, it is inherently inefficient. While the NEA purports to be the arbiter of taste and value in art, its leaders have never established their credentials to so act. Who will criticize the critics? The art experts at the NEA are selected by philistines like Clinton, Bush, and Reagan, usually on the basis of political cronyism. Want to be the next head of the NEA? Then sponsor a fundraiser for a promising presidential contender. If decisions such as these have, as alleged, an eleven-fold multiplier effect by stimulating matching local government and private funds (see The New York Times , January 9, 1995, page B8), that is all the more reason to banish the NEA to the realm of out-of-print fiction.

Those who criticize the NEA for sponsoring certain artists whose works have doubtful value, but give undeniable offense, miss the point. If all the NEA did was promote the music of George Gershwin, America’s greatest composer, its existence would still be illegitimate. Gershwin himself managed to compose great music without an NEA — he worked odd jobs. And there is no doubt that that great music will be performed after the death of the NEA. In fact, a good funeral march would be particularly appropriate.

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    James Ostrowski is an attorney in Buffalo and serves as a policy advisor for The Future of Freedom Foundation.