Opinion: Daily Journal

The Wrong Case for Arts Funding

RALEIGH – As I have written about before, I have had a lifelong fascination with the arts. I grew up with it. I enjoy music, dance, and drama. My mother was an art teacher. I have written several dozen songs for local musical theater.

At the same time, I believe that visual and performing arts should be financed by participants, observers, and patrons. I don’t think taxpayers should be compelled to pay for the creation of art. I don’t think they should be forced to subsidize the aesthetic or entertainment choices of others. I don’t think those who enjoy listening to country music or hip hop should be forced to subsidize the creation, performance, or broadcast of chamber music or show tunes, despite my preference for the latter two genres.

The one area where I think government involvement is appropriate is the inclusion of arts education in the curriculum of public schools, colleges, and universities. To the extent that taxpayers are compelled to finance the basic education of young people, that basic education should include exposure to basic principles of art.

In the Western tradition, music was considered one of the seven liberal arts – although it was in the quadrivium, the second tier of subjects, rather than the initial trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. In Islamic and Asian civilizations, the choice of subject matter was different than in Europe, but some form of art was also considered to be an indispensable element of any curriculum designed to produce an educated person.

Unfortunately, those who seek to protect or expand government funding for the arts make all the wrong arguments. Instead of championing the arts as part of a sound, basic education – which would include a rigorous curriculum and independent assessment of student achievement – they try to argue that government subsidies for the arts increase economic growth.

This is balderdash. If people voluntarily choose to direct their consumer dollars or philanthropic contributions to the arts, they and their beneficiaries derive mutual benefits. They obviously expect to gain more enjoyment from this decision than they would from spending their dollars elsewhere. But if the state coercively directs consumer dollars or contributions to the arts, via taxes, it prevents people from spending their money on something they value more highly. That’s a gain of value to recipient artists or organizations and a loss of value to taxpayers.

Arts groups have concocted all sorts of preposterous arguments and economic “studies” to obscure this basic fact. For example, they hire an economist to count up all the tax money spent on the arts in a given community, the total budgets of arts organizations, and the number of people who receive income from those organizations directly or indirectly. Then they claim that the initial expenditure of tax money causes the total budgets, which then creates a certain number of jobs.

It’s beyond silly. Arts organizations would exist without the tax dollars. They might be smaller, but you can’t attribute total arts spending or employment to having been caused by the tax subsidy. Moreover, such an analysis ignores the other side of the equation. What firms or organizations would have gotten the money if it hadn’t been taxed and spent on the arts? How many jobs are associated with those industries? To argue a net economic benefit, arts lobbyists would have to show that more jobs, income, and value would be created by the arts than would be created by alternative uses of dollar (e.g., dining, entertainment, sports, or outdoor recreation).

They can’t do that. The empirical evidence isn’t friendly to their argument. For example, a 2009 paper in The Review of Regional Studies examined the relationship between state spending on the arts and economic performance. The researchers found that an increase in arts subsidies “leads to an overall reduction in state economic growth,” in that the taxes required harm the economy more than the arts spending improves it.

According to the latest data available, North Carolina is about average in state arts funding. I’d like to see those dollars redirected to arts education, or returned to taxpayers. I’ll pay for my own symphony tickets, thank you.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and author of Our Best Foot Forward: An Investment Plan for North Carolina’s Economic Recovery.