Monday, September 28, 2009

Needs and the NEA

On Saturday a Chronicle editorial addressed recent controversies regarding the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA):
Stimulus funds and the National Endowment for the Arts are like catnip to some conservative critics — something to pounce on at every opportunity.
I am not a conservative, but I would add Chronicle editorials to the list of things to pounce on. The editorial downplays the money involved, calling it "peanuts" compared to other government spending. The amount of the expenditure is not the issue--the principle underlying the NEA is. And the editorial states that principle quite openly.
There is a valid concern when public funds are allocated that they should go first to those in greater need — the homeless, the jobless and those without health care. This particular funding helps alleviate those same needs. It is not for lavish productions, risqué or otherwise. It is strictly to preserve or create jobs, a major key to ending this recession.
Not surprisingly, need is to be the determining factor when spending tax dollars. As the editorial points out, there are competing needs--the homeless, the jobless, and starving artists. With so many competing needs, there is an endless stream of beggars knocking on government's door for hand outs. And each declares that its needs are more important than the needs of others. The results can be downright silly.

One of the recipients of NEA money was the International Accordion Festival, which drew the ire of Michelle Malkin. An earlier Chronicle story reports:

That just offends festival organizer Pat Jasper. She said conservatives often attack arts funding because they view it as something for liberal cultural elites. But the snobbishness involving her festival, Jasper says, comes from people who do not appreciate the accordion as vital to music ranging from country to zydeco to Parisian café songs.

“The expression of disdain for accordions pins them for what they are, which is cultural elites,” Jasper said. “The accordion makes the music of the American heartland.”

I would like to assure Jasper than I have no disdain for the accordion. It is a perfectly fine instrument. However, I do not own an accordion nor do I own any recordings that feature an accordion. I have never attended an accordion festival. In other words, I have not and do not voluntarily spend my money to support the accordion. But thanks to the NEA, I get to do so.

Just to be clear, I don't voluntarily support lute festivals either. Nor do I purchase recordings of sitars, bongo drums, or wind chimes. My indifference towards these instruments is not borne of snobbishness or elitism.

Jasper seems to think that because I don't want to spend my money supporting her preferred music then I am a cultural elite. But I could launch a similar charge against anyone who opposes spending their money to support my preferences. The fact is, I don't want to subsidize anyone's values, and I certainly don't expect them to subsidize mine. I could care less what Jasper chooses to do with her money; I care a great deal when I am forced to spend my money in certain ways, no matter how dire the alleged need of the recipient.

The argument from need goes even further. The Chronicle calls NEA expenditures a "smart investment".
Funding the arts means directly funding the economy, especially in Houston, where more than 500 nonprofit arts organizations support more than 14,000 full-time jobs and make up a $625 million industry — contributing twice as much to the city's economy as does the city's convention industry, reports the Houston Arts Alliance.
That artists need a job is justification for government support. The fallacy that government spending creates jobs was pointed out by Henry Hazlitt (and others). Government spending might "create" some jobs--and very visible jobs at that. But the money taken from private individuals and businesses also destroys jobs, and that destruction is seldom noticed.

The needs of the homeless, the jobless, and starving artists are not a claim on the lives and property of their fellow citizens. If these individuals robbed a bank because of their need, they would properly be thrown in jail. Their thievery is no less immoral when they use government as their proxy.

If an artist or musician (or anyone for that matter) cannot make a living in their chosen profession, they have no right to demand that others support them. They can change professions or find a voluntary benefactor, but they have no right to rob others. They only have the right to be free to act according to their judgment, so long as they respect the mutual rights of others. In a social context, freedom is the only legitimate "need".


Rational Education said...

Reading your blog every weekday morning has become my morning staple before I ever get to the morning newspaper. I actually have started to look forward with pleasure, excitement and suspense as to what topic you may have chosen to examine on a particular morning. The principled way you examine any given issue, makes it so intelligible and persuasive. The blog sure innoculates for a lot of the inanities that I would be reading in the news (!) and starts my day with a dose of reason. Thank you.

As always I enjoyed reading this morning's post on the NEA and its defenders.

p.s. I hope some day in the near future you may think of publishing your posts in a book form as a compilation of essays.

Brian Phillips said...

Thank you for your very nice comments. I have been working on a book idea (on democracy). It is a huge amount of work and I have no idea when it will be completed.