It used to be that liberalism, as such, professed the principles of — in the words of the great English free-trader Richard Cobden — “Economy, Retrenchment, and Reform.” Against the excesses of an “extravagant government,” Cobden implored his fellow liberals to heed the “true faith” even when their party held control of the government, an entreaty that no doubt fell largely on deaf ears.
Today, if any ideological preference is associated with Cobden’s message it is not the liberalism he espoused but conservatism. Thus are positions that were once solidly and uncontroversially liberal — reproving extravagant government, for example — now thought to be the special preserves of only the most conservative quarters of American politics.
One such government extravagance is the National Endowment for the Arts, a project beloved by today’s liberals and apparently imperiled by the White House’s proposed budget. Speaking with Chuck Todd on MTP Daily, Washington Free Beacon editor Matthew Continetti predicted that this budget would “occasion a real, fundamental debate about the role of government in this country.”
One hopes that Mr. Continetti is correct, that the national conversation turns from tired, superficial tabloid fare to these fundamental questions.
Running on a budget of $148 million, admittedly a drop in the federal budget bucket, the NEA funds the arts through thousands of grants in all 50 states. The NEA’s supporters seem to believe that if one supports the arts generally, she must support federal funding for the arts. They simply assume that such grants would not exist without the NEA.
Perhaps they wouldn’t.
But what a deeply confused outlook on the ways in which human beings think and behave generally and engage with the arts in particular; for it assumes at once both that people are so mean — so devoid of culture and interest in the higher pleasures — that they would never think to fund the arts were it not for the government’s guns to their heads, and that the very same morally and intellectually debased people are yet sufficiently virtuous to make artistic decisions with other people’s money.
Public choice theory provides us with this simple insight: if we are going to assume people are selfish, narrowly focused on their own lives and needs, then this assumption should hold across the board. That is, it must hold even when we’re considering the NEA, its chairperson, and its council.
And herein lies the problem with ostensibly innocuous government agencies such as the NEA, with modern government’s relentless mission creep.
Government-funded art is publicly-funded art only once government is lazily conflated with the public. It is not the public (whatever indeed that may mean) that decides which art projects are to be supported with taxpayer dollars.
The taxpayers are never consulted, as they tend to favor art to which funding flows quite without compulsion — the kind of lowbrow art at which the sophisticates of the NEA council turn up their noses.
History counsels rather less sanguineness toward state-funded art, a category more appropriately termed propaganda. The history of compelled funding for the arts is rather darker than most of its champions would admit, though more charitably it may be that they are happily unaware of that history.
The CIA’s sponsorship of American abstract expressionists art, for example, is now well-documented, as are the Nazis’ and Fascists’ uses of art and cinema.
Since its founding in 1965, many artists, uncomfortable with the strings (explicit or implicit) attached thereto, have declined NEA funding for their projects. Theater producer Joseph Papp, for example, made headlines in 1990 when he spurned a $50,000 NEA grant in protest of anti-obscenity conditions then attached to Endowment-funded projects.
From more conservative political quarters, Hilton Kramer, the great New York Times art critic who went on to found The New Criterion magazine, likewise rejected an NEA fellowship, satisfied that the fellowship program was a meritless and self-indulgent “private club to which a number of outside guests — always carefully selected on the basis of geography, race, and gender — were each year invited.”
A more accurate — and, importantly, less naive — understanding of the relationship between government and civil society, the arts included, finds the former crowding out and marginalizing the latter. So important are art and culture to a free, flourishing society that we shouldn't let government anywhere near them.
Government funding for the arts means the politicization of the arts, their perversion in cynical service to partisan and ideological agendas. For reasons that have nothing to do with the budget, culture, like religion and the sacred privacy of the family, must be insulated from arbitrary power.
Government should be an agent of the people, a service provider, if a glorified one. And returning it to this more modest role, properly subordinate to voluntary civil society, will require cuts far deeper than those proposed by President Trump.
The kind of retrenchment for which the White House and its budget director seem to be calling is an echo of Richard Cobden and is therefore thoroughly liberal, at least in the older sense. Cobden’s career was, in the words of historian Anthony Howe, a tireless attempt “to implant the ‘Enlightenment project’ within the fabric of the world order.”
If anything is worth conserving, it’s this project, the old liberal one at the center of which is a government limited to protecting person and property. If government fancies itself a charity dedicated to the arts, it might consider funding its projects as a charity does—through voluntary contributions.
David D’Amato, an adjunct law professor at DePaul University, is a policy adviser at the Heartland Institute.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.