Tyler Cowen presents a powerful idea in his 2006 book (reprised in 2010) Good & Plenty: The Creative Successes of American Arts Funding: arts policy is a battle between aesthetic and economic reasoning that can be settled by keeping the American system basically as it is. His sweeping argument draws on a deeply-researched history of arts policy in the United States dating back to the late 19th century. All of his historical analysis is developed in the context of a broader argument for a “decentralized” arts policy, which means moving the responsibility of arts policy decision-making from officials to consumers.
Instead of settling the debate over the role of government in the arts, this admirable attempt at finding a central policy philosophy amenable to free-market types and progressives alike leaves considerable room for interpretation and disagreement. His argument supports policy changes to the NEA’s grantmaking scheme that won’t satisfy conservative hopes of dismantlement. Meanwhile, protecting copyright and expanding State Department arts programs is unlikely to meet arts advocates’ demands. Cowen’s argument does, though, introduce a useful concept for policy analysts as they weigh alternatives.
Art Lovers vs. Libertarian Economists
Good & Plenty is written atop the backdrop of a hypothesized political discourse divided into two camps: aesthetics and economics. As Cowen explains it, the art lovers are high-minded, cultured people who want to promote the best art. In their ideal world, the government would support the most important artists such that high culture would be sustained. The libertarian economists believe the best art is that which serves paying customers. In this view, every purchase is a tiny message from society to the artist telling her to keep up the good work. All of these whispers reach meaningful volume when the art pleases society and won’t when society isn’t sufficiently pleased. The libertarian economist’s perspective leaves little room for government intervention.
Cowen maps these two groups onto the two major American political parties. He maintains that the fights over arts policy in the 1980’s and 1990’s—including attempts to close the National Endowment for the Arts and arguments over the definitions of decency, censorship, and artistic liberty—were essentially just arguments between art lovers and libertarian economists. Thus, he believes that finding policy instruments that resolve the philosophical conflict between these two stylized positions would help the US, and potentially Congress, reach a political consensus around a single American arts policy.
Cowen believes strongly in decentralization as a policy tool, and advocates for it throughout the book. The philosophy of decentralization holds that decisions made by individuals are better than those made by a committee or, worse, a political process, so we should place citizens in charge of determining the art they enjoy. The list of policies he suggests under this banner is long.
As an obvious and indicative example of decentralized policy, Cowen pushes for a copyright regime that balances access with rewards for widely enjoyed work. His nuanced argument focuses on the ways that copyright is still working in the internet age and suggests that it be left as is: providing an incentive for artists to create, but not foreclosing future technological innovation (even if it may threaten copyright).
Cowen also advocates for other, less familiar distributed approaches to funding the arts. Citing the historical role of private and corporate giving in support of the arts, he argues that the tax deduction for charitable giving acts as a support mechanism for the arts. He writes extensively about the role of education subsidies and government jobs programs in making the artist’s life possible–providing what he characterizes as low-responsibility jobs that lighten the workload on participating artists so they can advance their craft.
Though he does not advocate direct arts funding, he does make a case for two main ways to make it more decentralized: arbitrary and idiosyncratic selection. Arbitrary selection—choosing whom to fund entirely at random—works, Cowen believes, because it is better than the risk-averse selection process that dominates political or committee funding. Idiosyncratic funding choices, which he defines as making a funding choice as an individual according to one’s own taste even if that individual is supposed to be representing others, serves the same anti-conservative goal. He claims that many of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal arts programs met the arbitrariness standard. The Works Progress Administration’s (WPA) employment programs for visual artists gave a job worth roughly one third of their income to any artist who could provide the WPA with a framed canvas. The Roosevelt administration saw this as an anti-poverty program, paying people who had skills and could stimulate the economy if they had money in their pockets to do something, even if it wasn’t so useful. When the program ended, the WPA burned thousands of the paintings, and even sold some to a plumber as pipe insulation. Cowen claims that this type of arbitrary government spending on the arts helps to remove the decision-making of which artists are the best from the government and give it back to the people.
On the other end of the spectrum, he praises the historical role of nobility in the arts. He argues that when aristocrats followed their tastes and paid for art accordingly, they were unencumbered by the art-by-committee problem. Instead, they were able to make bold and radical artistic decisions that forecasted landmark innovation. He explains that this approach could be replicated in the US by removing the political burdens on the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Removing the NEA’s dependence on the annual appropriations process could free the agency to make more radical decisions. He draws a historical analogue from the aristocratic funding of the arts to the American policy of providing tax subsidies to wealthy folks who make donations to arts institutions.
All of these approaches give us a picture of the patchwork American arts policy from the twentieth century to today. The common thread Cowen identifies is some degree of decentralization, whether it be a laissez-faire, property rights-based approach (as he would prefer) or a more muscular intervention like that of Roosevelt’s WPA. Cowen does not argue strongly for any single adjustment like changing the funding structure of NEA or increasing federal arts education spending. He advocates instead for us to keep doing what we’re doing: promoting the best art with decentralized funding mechanisms.
Cowen’s case for a breakdown between art lovers and libertarian economists, who I will call aestheticists and econs for short, seems plausible. It is not uncommon in DC to see two warring parties duke it out over a fundamental philosophical difference. But is that what is happening in the arts? Certainly there are people who believe in sustaining high culture. Many of these groups receive a small but significant portion of their annual budgets from the NEA, and they lobby for more NEA spending. On the other side, there are many libertarian and conservative economists, like those at George Mason University where Cowen teaches, who find government spending counter-productive and potentially destructive when it interferes with private market mechanisms for providing products and services. Cowen likely spoke with many people in each of these camps, and did some extrapolation to arrive at the archetypal aestheticist and econ. Individual advocates on either side may not have arguments as pure and consistent as those Cowen attributes to them, but his simplifications seem reasonable.
If these were the only two perspectives in Washington, his argument would have a sound footing. He dissects more than a century of American arts policy, explaining along the way where it succeeded and failed from the aestheticist’s and econ’s points of view. His case that decentralization works for both sides is backed up by a thoughtful blend of historical and philosophical analysis.
But there’s a problem: there are a lot more than two sides in this fight. Cowen provides hardly any evidence that conservative congressional arguments against the NEA are based on a preference for market capitalism. In the late 80’s and early 90’s, incidents like those involving Robert Mapplethorpe and Karen Finley centered on content at least as much as the means of financing. Similarly, many conservatives are today seeking ways to legislate against violence in popular video games and films, using Quentin Tarantino as a scapegoat. This suggests that many conservatives probably don’t condition their support of particular arts policies solely on free-market principles. Instead, their ideal policy would rein in government financing of the arts without removing their political leverage to define what content is appropriate and what is not.
The corresponding aestheticist model has the same problem. The progressive arguments for government spending on the arts have not only been about the importance of beauty or intrinsic value of art. Instead, they have also focused on the positive role of government in society, the potential for arts as a driver of economic development, and the importance to democracy of giving everyone a voice. Many progressives see the benefits produced by the arts as reason enough for the government to support them.
Finding a point of resolution between the arguments of aestheticists and econs has value—it creates frameworks for thoughtful advocates from the purists in each camp to find common cause—but it doesn’t solve the fundamental problem. Most people have deeper motivations behind their support (or lack of support) for the arts, whether cultural, moral, or politically strategic. There is also a growing body of literature in the field of psychology that suggests we don’t hear—and sometimes can’t even understand—alternative views or evidence against our position, making it compromise even less likely. This appears to be happening in debates about the arts. Framing the argument as he does allows Cowen to sidestep a lot of the complications that are really at the center of why these political debates persist. If only those who are really pure aestheticists or pure econs are moved by a proposed reconciliation, the political movement built on that message is likely to fail.
For a recent analogy, consider the politics over health care reform: a bill modeled on legislation proposed by a leading conservative think tank and enacted by a popular Republican governor was not supported by even a single Republican in the House of Representatives or the Senate. Many of the resistors explained that they were voting against a government takeover of health care or an invasion of government into the free market. The motivations underlying all of these arguments came from a fundamental distrust of government, not from a place of trying to build a health care reform bill that found a compromise between government-free and government-run.
Similarly, when President Obama was Senator Obama, he voted against a bill that would raise the debt ceiling. The outrage his White House has displayed during the debates over the debt ceiling since 2011 make clear what the debt ceiling is really about: flexing political muscle and signaling approval or disapproval of the current direction of policy.
I believe Cowen’s case that arguments over arts policy are really about creating the best environment for the arts to thrive is misguided. As in the health care and debt ceiling debates, the reasons for political opinions in the arts are complex, and that complexity matters if solutions to divisive issues are to be found.
Though I am not convinced decentralization is a politically feasible solution to the culture wars, its potential as a policy mechanism in the arts is still worth considering. Decentralization’s strength comes from a single argument: people know what they like better than the government. This idea, which is deeply Hayekian (see “The Use of Knowledge in Society”), is compelling because it is almost undeniably true. Paul Ryan and I have very different tastes in music; I wouldn’t want him to be budgeting the money musicians receive.
Hiding in this argument is a hard-to-solve conundrum: what if artists are not responsive to demand? When I was in music school, we all talked about wanting to make a living, and many of us took classes to that end, but most of us bought into the “starving artist” picture of our life. Most artists make art because they love it, not for the money. The argument that individuals know better than the government is used to support the market mechanism and invoke a market logic, suggesting that those who receive money will keep on working at their craft, while those who don’t will quit. In the arts, this mechanism seems to be broken, with people scraping by just to be able to do what they love rather than quitting and putting their efforts into something at which they could make more money.
The above is just one of the problems with a broad, uncritical application of decentralization to all arts policy dilemmas. However, Cowen’s decentralization concept can be a useful tool for systematizing the thinking policy-makers use as they consider ways to improve proposed interventions and look for potential unintended consequences. It also points to a few seemingly peripheral policy items for which arts advocates should be campaigning. Among the most politically salient are:
- Keeping the academy funded. Ivory towers don’t have a great reputation in many Washington, DC circles, but they are an important tool for keeping artists employed. According to Cowen, many great artists depend on the government-subsidized open intellectual environment to create their best work, and this impact should be taken into account before cutting funding to colleges and universities.
- Closing down the Internet will not win the copyright war. Artists use the Internet as a critical tool for artistic innovation and distribution. Though copyright and new technology have differential effects across artistic disciplines, art is broadly enhanced by the freedom technology provides. Copyright is not a moral right, it is a legal construction, and Congress should avoid legislating it as the former.
- Maintaining the charitable giving deduction. Cowen makes a good case for why the charitable giving deduction, despite its drawbacks, is an important tool for funding the arts. Though many of the individuals who are taking the deduction likely have mundane, risk-averse artistic interests, his bet that enough idiosyncratic individuals are takings risks and funding innovative new projects seems like a good one to me.