A Modest Proposal For Shrinking The Government

Writing this month in The New Criterion, I noted the great angst emanating from the “Arts Community” over speculation that the Trump Administration might cut federal funding for various cultural programs. Yes, it’s true: the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities (each of which currently receives about $175 million per year) and the Corporation for Public Broadcast, which receives about $450 million and oversees NPR, PBS, and other initiatives, are, at least notionally, on the chopping block.

The anguished caterwauling that greeted this news was a marvel to behold. Thomas P. Campbell, the departing director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, skirled that “Abolishing the NEA would have disastrous consequences for the arts and for communities across our nation.” Oh, dear.

The venerable Apollo magazine featured a similarly distraught column which noted that “eliminating the NEA could have a troubling domino effect. The action could well embolden lawmakers to target other forms of support for the arts, education and humanities.

“Really,” I thought when reading this, “would that be a feature or a bug?” The Apollo piece went on to discover a possible silver lining in this tale of woe. Perhaps, it suggested, just maybe, eliminating the endowments would have a galvanizing effect.

It just might, but not, I would be willing to bet, in quite the way the writer for Apollo imagines. Getting rid of the national endowments, he speculates, “could be the act that unites arts advocates and policy-makers to fight for a transformative national arts policy that includes things such as substantial direct funding for artists and institutions, a cabinet-level culture secretary, and a national jobs programme for artists.”

Thank goodness none of that is on the table. (I mean, really, a “Cabinet-level cultural secretary”: don’t we have enough to worry about?)

But I like the first part of his thought experiment. Tom Campbell thinks abolishing the arts endowment would be “disastrous.” Why? The endowments, like so many other bad things, were started by Lyndon Johnson in the mid-1960s. Was America a cultural wasteland before that decade? What if you were to compare the quality of the arts and the vibrancy of cultural life from 1776 to 1965 with the period from 1965 to the present? Which would you prefer? Take your time.

But getting back to lawmakers targeting “other forms of support for the arts, education and humanities”: why not? Where do you think that “support” comes from? Please do not say “the government.” The government has no money. To be a little more precise, it has no money it has not appropriated from you, the citizens of America, through direct taxation or via the myriad indirect forms of taxation it relies upon to keep its bureaucracies plump and its battalions of managers happy. So when you hear someone talk about “substantial direct funding for artists and institutions,” what that means is he wants to pick your pocket in order to hand over some dough to a federal agency to distribute to causes he approves of.

The reason I suspect getting the federal government out of the business of “supporting the arts” would be a feature, not a bug, is that I don’t think the U.S. government, as a general rule, ought to be in the business of supporting culture. That’s not because I don’t like culture or don’t think it should be supported. I just don’t think government is the right mechanism for the job.

I have a pragmatic and a principled reason for this belief. The pragmatic reason is that government does such a horrible job at things like “supporting the arts.” It’s almost always a bureaucratic nightmare, entangled by red tape and guided partly by the pork rinds of patronage (“Have a grant, Mr. Smith. Did you know I am running for reelection next month?”) and partly the dictates of whatever politically correct mandates happen to be enforced at the moment (How many blacks/women/blighted urban city dwellers/transgendered folks will this serve?).

The principled reason revolves around the question: what things should government in an affluent, capitalist regime underwrite? Many fewer, I’d say, than it currently does. Americans used to be a risk-taking, experimental people. Beginning in the 1960s, we tried the experiment of making the government responsible for almost everything: education, healthcare, culture, common sense, and who may use what bathroom in a public facility.

How has that worked out? Badly. Madness, G. K. Chesterton once observed, was “using mental activity so as to reach mental helplessness.” Confronted with the Leviathan that is the sarcastically named “Great Society,” we find ourselves in a state of prostrate helplessness. “This is the way we’ve done things forever—well, at least since 1965. Ergo, we have to keep digging in this godforsaken hole.”

No we don’t. I think we should have the courage of our historical tradition as a risk-taking and experimental people. Having the government involved in every aspect of life has been, to use Tom Campbell’s term, disastrous. We shouldn’t keep at it.

Let’s try something new. Get rid of the national endowments. Get rid of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The world will not come to an end. Big Bird will find a new nest. After all, as the article in Apollo noted, private philanthropy dwarfs public subsidies. In 2014 alone, Americans donated $17 billion to cultural initiatives. You can pay for a lot of “Piss Christs” and emetic NPR programming with $17 billion. You can also pay for some good things. The point is, why should the government pay for this stuff, the good stuff or the rubbish?

And here’s where I hope the “domino effect” that Apollo mentioned comes into play. Why, when you come right down to it, should there be a Department of Education? Why should there be HUD or many of the other bureaucracies in the federal alphabet soup? How many actually conduce to the public good? The DOD: OK. No argument about the Department of Defense. (We currently spend about 16 percent of the federal budget on defense. In JFK’s time it was 50 percent. Priorities?) The Department of Justice has a role to play, even if it was perverted under Barack Obama. But how many other agencies? I’m sure there are other necessary ones. But then there are all the rest.

Take the Department of Education as an example. The actual quality of education in the U.S. has been on a downward trajectory ever since the ED was instituted in 1979 (another of Jimmy Carter’s brilliant ideas). It costs us, the taxpayers, more than $77 billion a year. That qualifies for Senator Dirksen’s “real money,” I’d say, and more to the point: what good does it do? In essence, the Department of Education is an enforcement tool for the teachers unions, which exist solely to pad the nests of teachers while mouthing platitudes about “our children” and making sure that no meaningful competition is allowed in education. I am an admirer of Betsy DeVos and have no doubt she will do as good a job as can be done at the Department of Education. But at the end of the day, it is a department that shouldn’t exist. With $77 billion you could buy almost three aircraft carriers. To my mind, a much better deal.

I wouldn’t stop with the Department of Education, either. During the Obama years, I imagined a weekly television game show whose lineaments I will reprise now that the environment for meaningful change and cost-cutting is more encouraging. It would work like this: Every week, TV contestants vie for the privilege of choosing a tile from a large spinning barrel. The barrel would be spun by some attractive woman—I nominate Melania Trump, though possibly she is otherwise engaged.

Anyway, whoever our host is spins the barrel, plucks out a tile, and hands it to the lucky contestant, who then reads aloud the name of the useless federal agency that is printed on the tile. Poof! The budget for that agency is zeroed out, general rejoicing, and we meet again next week to play again. I think we could profitably keep it up for a solid year, get rid of 52 wasteful programs or agencies, save the republic a ton of money, and thereby help drain the swamp.

What do you think? I offer the idea to the public free and for nothing.

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About Roger Kimball

Roger Kimball is editor and publisher of The New Criterion and the president and publisher of Encounter Books. He is the author and editor of many books, including The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia (St. Augustine's Press), The Rape of the Masters (Encounter), Lives of the Mind: The Use and Abuse of Intelligence from Hegel to Wodehouse (Ivan R. Dee), and Art's Prospect: The Challenge of Tradition in an Age of Celebrity (Ivan R. Dee).

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35 responses to “A Modest Proposal For Shrinking The Government”

  1. Nice to see Mr Kimball here.
    As he points out, we have a dandy, ready made blueprint for a great again America.
    It’s called the Constitution.
    Perhaps we ought to give it a try again after the hundred year disaster we’ve been experimenting with.

  2. Republicans can never pull the trigger on this obvious move. Why doesn’t it ever happen when they control everything? The other option is controlling the content. What if, for example, Big Bird started extolling the virtues of building the wall, America first, or making America great again? Then would there be more support for limited and neutral government on cultural and social issies?

    • There would have been, or more accurately, never been a President Blacketyblack and therefore a need, had Big Bird begun to thus proselytize 45 years ago

  3. Proof of the failure of public education is there for anyone to see, those that might care to see I mean.
    High school graduates who cannot read at grade level have been around since good ole Jimmie Carter’s time. Getting rid of this NEA hood ornament (Dept of Education) is a good start. Teacher’s unions need to be prevented from organizing on a statewide scale, that would clip their highly prized political power. The state of Pennsylvania is a case in point. The current Governor is in office because the Teachers Unions put him there and he is a DUD.

  4. Those people who are sorry concerned about this can solve the problem by stepping up and contributing more to those programs individually. After all, if they’re so important to so many people, there shouldn’t be any shortage of donors.

    If the only way you can fund something is by force, then maybe your program isn’t as necessary as you think.

  5. “Please do not say “the government.” The government has no money.”
    Could someone please tell the Bernie Bros!

  6. Apropos the above, I have a pop quiz for you,

    Subject: American History.

    First (and only) question: what happened on 20/21 July 1969?

    ————————- No cheating! ———————————–

    Yes of course: Neil Armstrong, followed by Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, walked on the moon… with poor old Mike Collins circling overhead in the command module, wondering “Why not me? Why not?”

    My point: I don’t know how many were involved in that mission, and all those that led up to it starting in 1961 (at the latest, depending on how you recon these things), but counting the mathematicians, scientists, engineers and technicians, and all the support people involved; working at NASA, or for the primary contractors, or the myriad subcontractors… they must have numbered in the thousands, perhaps tens of thousands. All of whom, from PhD’s to janitors, educated in an America that did not have a Department of Education. Every. Single. One.

    Could we “do” Apollo 11 today? No, and for many reasons. But that doesn’t refute the truth that we didn’t need a Department of Education to do great things. Didn’t then, don’t now. Flush it!

    • Oh Please, next you’re going to tell me that in the ’60s, Latin was regularly taught in American High Schools and now remedial English and math are regularly taught in American College’s and Universities. /sarc

      • In the 60s, math and English were taught, and taught well, in American High Schools, such that American Colleges and Universities simply flunked out those college students who failed basic introductory college courses. As for the Latin, I was in high school in the late 70s and yes, I learned a bit of Latin then, too, in my Charlotte high school.

      • I was in high school in the mid-to-late 70s. Latin was taught, but only “the smart kids” took Latin. Most took Spanish because “it was easy.” My first high school also taught French, German, and Italian. My second high school offered Russian instead of Italian.

        High schools today seem to push Spanish, with a class of French and German. Schools with high Chinese populations also get Mandarin.

      • I went to school in the late 60’s and early 70’s and yes Latin was taught at my school. I wish remedial English and Math was taught in our colleges/universities today then maybe we would not have so many dummies out acting like fools and babies. (I noted your sarcasm)

    • Michael Collins was stuck in orbit because he didn’t have a cool nickname like “Buzz.”

  7. “Take the Department of Education as an example. ”

    Me take it? I don’t want it.

    My suggestion: Lay off all its employees, raze the buildings it owns, then plow the earth they stood on with salt.

    That still might not kill the beast – but it would be a good start.

    • There is a precedent for this:
      Carthago delenda est.

      Of course, most recent high school grads will neither recognize the language used, nor understand the reference. Yes, I took Latin, too, but that was long ago, in a galaxy far far away…….

  8. I was thinking of reviving the old Roman custom of decimation, but this might work too.

    • Line the departments up, count out to the tenth one, have the other departments beat it to death?

      Or count out every tenth employee in a given department, and have their office mates do the beating?

      You’d have to televise it for best effect.

      • Either method would work. I was thinking of a series of elimination rounds.

        Yes, that was intentional.

  9. We should follow the rule of circumcision: you can take 5% off the top of anything.

  10. An additional mega boondoggle that needs to go is The Ad Council. Every stupid ad touts a govt program.

  11. I am in full accord with this article.

    The only four Departments that ought to remain are those of State, Treasury, Defense and Justice. (The Bureau of the Census belongs to the Department of State, as would the Federal Elections Commission if I thought we needed that agency. State Departments of State handle elections or anything to do with legislative apportionment.)

    I don’t recognize any enumerated powers of the Constitution to do anything else. With one exception: “The Congress shall have the power…to establish post offices and post roads.” And you know what? I would propose a Constitutional amendment *revoking* that enumerated power. Let private business or private networks handle the mail.

    In other countries, Ministries of Transportation run airlines and railroads. We need that kind of thing like the plague. Get rid of our Department of Transportation, and take down Amtrak.

    I could go on and on. But I think Mr. Kimball, and the rest of you, get my point.

  12. Yup. Cut off the NEA and CPB. We’ll be happy and in the end, so will those leeches. I have no doubt that the Resistors’ backlash will be to massively donate to the fundraising that will follow.. Meryl Streep can organize the campaign during her down time.

  13. “A Modest Proposal For Shrinking The Government?” So we’re going to EAT bureaucrats? Genius! Why didn’t I think of that?

  14. Roger Kimball’s “Modest Proposal” should be taken seriously and not as satire. The country would be a much better place if we could eliminate 90 percent of the government over-reach of the last 50 years, starting with the Dept. of Education and government funding of the arts.

  15. Bravo. However, I would suggest pulling 10 tiles a week in the game show of government agencies to be abolished and their budget zeroed out.

  16. Besides the Departments of Education and Housing & Urban Development I also think we should eliminate the Departments of Commerce (essentially a lobbying organization for business), Labor(Ditto for the Unions), HHS (Unconstitutional its functions should be devolved to state and local governments), Energy (Manufacture of nuclear weapons should be a function of the DOD, otherwise serves no real useful purpose), Elimination of these organizations would be a good start of restoring Constitutional government.

  17. The Federal government really got into the “arts” business in the 1930’s, and even then it was pro FDR and “New Deal” propaganda. Not much has changed.

    • Yes, President Roosevelt’s WPA (Works Progress Administration) was responsible for a raft of Federally-sponsored programs involving artists and writers, which didn’t end until World War II brought higher priorities to spending. Arguably the exigencies of the Depression made a case for the Federal government to serve as employer of last resort, but times have changed. We face not a crisis of business and capitalism, but a crisis of bloated bureaucracy and Progressivism. The burden of taxation to feed the Leviathan weighs heavy on the shoulders of the taxpayer, as does a looming debt of gargantuan proportions. Time to shrink them down to size.

      /Mr Lynn

  18. Yes, it’s called the Constitution. It is almost beyond reproof that the last President who really understood the Constitution, and believed in it was Grover Cleveland. He vetoed 586 Bills, and apparently only 2 were later over-ridden. On the Texas Farmer’s Seed Bill, he wrote:
    “I can find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution; and I
    do not believe that the power and duty of the General Government ought
    to be extended to the relief of individual suffering which is in no
    manner properly related to the public service or benefit. A prevalent
    tendency to disregard the limited mission of this power and duty should,
    I think, be steadily resisted, to the end that the lesson should be
    constantly enforced that, though the people support the Government, the
    Government should not support the people.”

    That applies to grants to the Arts and lots of other things as well.
    On Department-deletion, there is an interview of Milton Freidman, at the Hoover Institute, available through Youtube. It is quite old.. 1992??. In it he explains that the US actually needs only 4 and half Departments:
    State, Justice Treasury and Defence. Veteran’s Affairs should be rolled back into DoD. Which is the ‘half’.
    Little bits of Commerce and Interior should go back to Treasury, Some other bits of each to Justice. Some bits of Energy, relating to nuclear to DoD and the bits of all the rest to Justice (he was thinking of FDA, EPA (re pollution). All the rest Gone. Well worth a google search and the time.
    And Mr. Kimball, an editorial note, if I may. You wrote: (another of Jimmy Carter’s brilliant ideas).
    Now either, “brilliant” should be in italics to emphasize the sarcasm intended to be conveyed, or you must add “… brilliant ideas, for certain meanings of the word ‘brilliant”… or “idea”)
    Or install font sarcastic. I think you will need both sarcastic bold, and sarcastic italic.

    • Cleveland is, certainly, the last Democrat who gave a damn about the Constitution. Coolidge is still the last one who governed according to the principle of Masterly Inactivity.

  19. Right on the money. The three programs you cite costs $800 million dollars. If everyone who voted for Hillary donated $12 dollars, they would have those funds. I imagine even some who didn’t vote for her would contribute. The real travesty with these programs is the wasted tax dollars.