Subsidies in Culture

Bureaucracy and Arts don’t mix

Photo: Cole Hutson

About two years ago the artistic community in my home country Luxembourg railed against the minister of culture. In fact they accused her of unfairly cutting her budget in order to contribute to a balanced national budget. News commentaries and press releases claimed that “society needs to support artists”.

I will make two major points regarding this critique.

Government is not society

In most European countries civil society and government support art:

Individuals through appreciating and investing in it personally. Government by generously subsidising it. These are quite obviously not the same.

Government is an institution of just or unjust distribution — depending on who you ask. It essentially takes money from some to give it to others. Art is highly subsidised just like agriculture or the military (unnatural allies you might say). Theatres, orchestras, galleries, museums and the like, rely on contributions through funds provided by the state.

As a result of this, every time you object to a thing being done by government, people conclude that you object to its being done at all. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Indeed if we look at the history of art, especially that of music and painting, then the greatest innovation that we describe as such was done on a market in which the artist was dependent on his appeal.

The theatre was far more popular as wagons going from village to village, and these plays resonated with a much poorer and less educated audience that was still willing to contribute something.

In fact, private museums are not rare, for contemporary art alone there are already over 300 privately held museum worldwide, 35% of them have over 20,000 visitors a year; art galleries are often private and visited by thousands of art collectors and started off by artistic entrepreneurs; the music industry is completely standing on its own feet.

Art needs society to contribute to it, but it doesn’t need government.

Subsidies slow down artistic innovation

When an individual buys a good he gets the quality, quantity and price he wants. The same principle does not apply for government: subsidies have a distorting effect on prices but also on the production outcome. If you subsidise something you — unsurprisingly — get more of it, and that is lethal for innovation in that sector. If artists depend on government handouts to strive, then most of them do what the bureacrats in the funding committees want.

As long as government decides on what art is and what isn’t, we will have the same paintings, the same music, the same orchestras and the same plays. Innovative creation is being done by those who dare, those who depend not on pleasing a bureaucrat, but the people who appreciate and live art. These artists didn’t fall for the subsidy.

So yes, I don’t want to be required to pay for your jazz concert visit, and you should thank me for that. It might just get better.

This article first appeared on Bill’s blog.

Your favourite libertarian. Based in Brussels.