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Beware of Government Arts Spending

Tuesday, November 29, 2016 13:41
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Art is too important to be dependent on politicians, and injecting politics into anything inevitably tarnishes it, writes Lawrence W. Reed of Foundation for Economic Education.

Economist Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Foundation for Economic Education in Atlanta, Georgia. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Real Heroes: Inspiring True Stories of Courage, Character and Conviction. Follow on Twitter and Like on Facebook.

While in Wichita, Reed appeared on WichitaLiberty.TV in this episode. An abridged version of the following appeared in the Wichita Eagle.

Beware of Government Arts Spending
By Lawrence W. Reed

While visiting Wichita in October, I learned that city government subsidies for the arts is a local, contentious issue. I’d like to offer a perspective: Don’t do it. Art is too important to be dependent on politicians, and injecting politics into anything inevitably tarnishes it.

Proponents of art subsidies argue that because a large majority of people enjoy art and even personally engage in it, it’s therefore a government responsibility. But even larger majorities of people enjoy things like clothing, pets and good movies; this fact is actually an argument for government to butt out and stick to doing its proper duties.

Lawrence W. Reed

Lawrence W. Reed

Those “studies” that purport to show X return on Y amount of government arts spending are a laughingstock among economists. The numbers are cooked and almost never compared to alternative uses of tax money. Even less frequently do subsidy advocates consider what people might choose to do if their earnings weren’t taxed away in the first place.

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 politicians and bureaucracy is supposed to somehow magnify wealth, 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 to direct all income through the government?

What if “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 donation to something I know is on the dole than to something that depends on the good hearts of willing givers.

What if I, as a taxpayer, could keep what the government would otherwise spend on the arts and invest it in my child’s education and get twice the return than the government would ever get on the arts? The more that government takes, the less we can purchase of the things we value, including tickets to the theatre or a concert.

Money which comes voluntarily from the heart is more meaningful than money that comes at gunpoint (taxes). For that reason I don’t believe in either arts welfare or shotgun marriages. There’s an endless list of desirable, enriching things, very few of which carry a tag that says, “Must be provided by taxes and politicians.”

If we don’t rob Peter the worker to pay Paul the artist, perhaps Paul may have to become a better artist or a better marketer of his art, or perhaps find another profession entirely. Welcome, Paul, to the real world of willing customers and earning an honest living.

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