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.