I was reading the Economist recently and came across a debate on whether the government should be funding the Fine Arts. As a libertarian, I knew that my initial reaction would be in the negative. However, I wanted to see if a case could be made in favor of the government subsidizing the arts. Although there might be some sub-points, the proponent's argument can be boiled down to the fact that supporting the arts is a positive externality. A creative society leads to innovation, which leads to overall growth of a society. I'm not questioning the causality in this instance. What I do want to discern is whether the government should be funding the arts in the first place.
A question that gets overlooked is "what is art?" It can be defined as an expression of human creative skills or imagination. That seems pretty broad of a definition, so for the sake of argument, it is best to re-frame the question as "what does one, i.e. society, consider art?" Answers that come to my mind would be such arts as classical or jazz music, opera, or even ballet. However, there is no clear-cut, unanimous agreement of what constitutes as art. Below is a "piece of art" I saw a few months ago at the Art Institute of Chicago. Do we classify this as art?
Should Blue Collar TV be considered art? How about pornography or a crucifix in a glass of urine, both of which would be considered highly offensive to many people's sensibilities? After all, one's idea of a masterpiece is another individual's idea of obscenity. The point I am trying to make at this moment in the discussion is that what we define as cultured, refined, or artistic is dictated by our personal preferences, which makes defining art a subjective matter.
The NEA only has a $146M budget for this year, which is a very small amount of money in comparison to the entirety of the US federal budget for 2012. However, my response is this: I wouldn't care if the budget were $146M or $146B; it's simply money this country cannot afford to spend while dealing with debt issues. The issue with government intervention is much deeper than the fiscal issues. Why do some bureaucratic agents at the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) get to decide which type of art is worthy of funding? If further public funding leads to crowding out private donations, then the government gets to decide what is appropriate art (i.e., censorship). That would be a violation of the First Amendment's freedom of speech. Based on legal precedent, America has been pretty good about preserving freedom of speech, which is why I'm not too worried about the government going in that totalitarian direction. Regardless, there is nothing in the Constitution that enumerates that Congress should fund the Arts. Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8 is in the specific context of preserving intellectual property rights (i.e., copyright laws).
Whether it's with funding Solyndra, "rescuing" Chrysler, or keeping your local symphony orchestra afloat, the government shouldn't be choosing winners and losers. If the government doesn't intervene, especially in these economic times, wouldn't that just be us waving the white flag and giving up on the Fine Arts? Of course not! However, you have to contend with those who disagree and think the government is the solution to everything because they believe that the free market is incapable of creating positive externalities. How do you think that artists such as Michelangelo, Shakespeare, or Francisco Goya made it? Through private benefactors. The Royal Academy of Arts in Britain has survived for over two centuries without public funding.
Even now in 2012, only 13% of arts funding in the United States comes from the government (page v of NEA document). The remaining 87% comes from two sources. The first is wealthy, private donors. The second is ticket revenues. The arts are largely treated like a private good, and it should be rendered as a private good. Much like any entrepreneur who wants to invest in a business venture, the artist has to prove his value to society. Not all art is good. Just because one calls himself an artist does not mean that any entity, whether it's the free market or the government, should sustain his livelihood just because it's called "art." If an artist cannot find a benefactor or produce enough revenue to keep up his business, he should fail, just like any other businessman.
As an example, I really love classical music, and I thus lament over its decline in this country. I personally think that all the money that goes into something like football or baseball is crazy, especially when considering the millions of dollars that the athletes make while so many Americans are struggling financially. However, I can explain the "ridiculousness" by the fact there is a high consumer demand for these sports (i.e., a lot of people like it and are willing to spend a lot of money on football-related and baseball-related goods and services), and if that is what the people want to spend their money on, they should be allowed to do so because that's the underlying premise behind economic freedom.
Conversely, I can explain the decline of classical music in economic terms, which can be either attributed to an over-saturated labor market (i.e., there are too many orchestras), the subsidizing of classical music caused the ticket prices to exceed the actual socially optimum benefit (i.e., tickets are too expensive because classical music was overvalued via the subsidies), a change in consumer preferences (i.e., less people like classical music than they used to), or obsolescence (i.e., technology caused the preference change from seeing live concerts to recorded music). If classical music aficionados are worried about the state of classical music, there will be more benefactors to symphonies and more people attending classical music concerts. If not, seeing live classical music will either become a luxury good or extinct.
By funding what is deemed the proper form of art that should be preserved, the self-prolcaimed cultural elitists in this country are essentially defining art. From hearing these proponents, you would think that art couldn't survive without a bureaucratic agency, in spite of doing just fine for centuries. Art is a part of culture, and culture is an organic process that reflects a given society in a given time period. That process should take place through the "spontaneous order" known as the free-market system. Anything short of that inhibits the free expression of the artist.