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Why Does Government Meddle in the Arts?

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When the Washington Post recently honored Sidney Yates, 89, on the occasion of his retirement, it emphasized that he had “made his mark on the arts.”

Is Sidney Yates a composer? Musician? Painter? Poet? Writer?

None of the above.

He’s a congressman.

Don’t laugh. In Washington, you can make your mark on the arts just by chairing the subcommittee that oversees appropriations for the National Endowments of the Arts and Humanities. From that vantage point, Yates, as he modestly put it, “help[ed] the arts and the humanities be the pride of the country.”

After 24 terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Illinois Democrat is giving up his office. His retirement is being reported as a blow to American culture because he has been a “fierce defender of the arts.” His claim to that title lies in his unflagging belief that the taxpayers should be forced to finance artistic activity and jailed if they refuse.

For Yates, the great threat to American art came in the 1980s when Republicans talked about cutting government appropriations to the endowments. There were even murmurs of abolition. But the threat subsided, largely because wealthy old-line Republicans feared losing the prestige they get from sitting on boards of community cultural organizations that receive federal grants.

In the silly world of Washington, if you favor forcing the taxpayers to finance artists (even those whom they find repulsive), you are a champion of the arts. If you oppose compulsion, you are an enemy of the arts, not to mention free speech. By any objective standard, this is of course nonsense. What do tax subsidies have to do with the artistic vitality of the country? As for freedom of speech, forcing people to finance expression that they wouldn’t voluntarily support surely violates the First Amendment.

To hear the inside-the-beltway crowd tell it, you’d think that before the endowments were set up in the mid 1960s, America was a cultural wasteland. To believe that, you have to ignore a few things, such as jazz; the Broadway musical; modern dance; rhythm and blues; rock and roll; bluegrass; American fiction, poetry, and painting; and lots of other things. Many art forms that are today considered mainstream were so innovative in their early days that the arts endowment, had it existed, probably wouldn’t have given them money.

Great art doesn’t need help from the government. The freedom of citizens not to support art is not only consistent with cultural vitality, it is the key to it. How odd that the so-called champions of the arts have so little confidence that they would flourish if the taxpayers were not harnessed in their service.

Those champions are caught in their own hopeless contradiction, however: while they insist that without taxpayer support the arts would founder, they also tell us that the amount government spends is minuscule. Indeed, taxpayer support is a tiny percentage of the total amount Americans spend on the arts. So why the fuss?

The endowment’s backers say the money provides leverage to summon forth private donations to organizations and individuals that win the prestige of taxpayer largess. If so, that’s an excellent reason to abolish the endowments forthwith. If government appointees are able to channel not just taxpayer money but also private benefactions to their pet artistic causes, that is more power than a free society should tolerate. Of all places, the United States, with its libertarian heritage, should not be proud of the fact that the government ires to pick cultural winners.

What the advocates of government aid to the arts don’t appreciate is that art as a cultural institution, like language, is spontaneous and undesigned. Throughout history the arts have flourished when artists were at liberty to offer their products to the broad or narrow market of their choosing and when art consumers were at liberty to accept or reject those products.

Artistic freedom is for both buyer and producer. The endowments must go.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.