Waxing Theoretical Part 2: Small “el” liberalism

This is the second in a series of blog posts in which I draw from an essay I’ve been working on to unpack some of the arguments that are made against government funding for the arts.  We are seeing this argument played out this week in real terms as the five employees of the Kansas Arts Commission received their layoff notices while the White House Domestic Policy Director blogged about the importance of arts education.  You can read the abstract of the full essay along with some context here.  In this installment, I focus on the argument that insists that arts funding is beyond the scope of government. My usual disclaimer about this post being a bit more academic in its discourse than most blog posts applies again.  At the end of the series I’ll post a full list of references.

To begin, recall this statement from Texas governor Rick Perry’s 2011 state of the state address:

Frank discussions about the true purpose of state government, must be followed by a willingness to act on our convictions…Let’s suspend non-mission-critical entities like the Historical Commission or the Commission on the Arts

Limiting the scope of government is what Perry is really talking about and that argument has its roots in classical liberalism. [Note that liberalism here refers to small “l” liberalism, not contemporary leftist big L Liberals.]

            There are many perspectives on what constitutes “the true purpose of state government.”  Those, like Governor Perry, who would argue for limiting that purpose often reference the development of the U.S. Constitution and the basic assumptions of its framers, especially Madison and Hamilton, to construct their argument.  The recent popularity of the small government Tea Party movement, for example, is fueled ideologically (some would say fetishistically (Lithwick, 2011)) by adherence to the document and its framing principles.  In the classically liberal form of democracy that grew out of 17th and 18th century political and economic philosophy, government exists to protect the rights of individuals to engage in free trade (Brown, 2003).   Liberal political thought is based, at least in part, in the laissez-faire economics of Adam Smith, whose 1776 The Wealth of Nations was more popular in the newly formed United States than in Europe, and in the notion of individual liberty as articulated by Smith’s antecedent, John Locke, who contrasts liberty in a state of nature from liberty in a society:

The natural liberty of man is to be free from any superior power on earth, and not to be under the will or legislative authority of man, but to have only the law of nature for his rule. The liberty of man, in society, is to be under no other legislative power, but that established, by consent, in the commonwealth; nor under the dominion of any will, or restraint of any law, but what that legislative shall enact, according to the trust put in it.

The “legislative authority” is legitimate only insofar as those it governs consent to the restraints placed upon them by that body.

Adam Smith

Adam Smith (1776) is more specific about the limited scope of government, citing three (really four) legitimate roles for government: national defense, administration of justice, and provision of institutions to facilitate commerce (3) and education (4).  He writes,  “After the public institutions and public works necessary for the defense of the society, and for the administration of justice, both of which have already been mentioned, the other works and institutions of this kind are chiefly those for facilitating the commerce of the society, and those for promoting the instruction of the people” (V.1.70).  He notes, however, that government has a duty to provide “those public institutions and those public works, which, though they may be in the highest degree advantageous to a great society, are, however, of such a nature that the profit could never repay the expence [sic] to any individual or small number of individuals, and which it therefore cannot be expected that any individual or small number of individuals should erect or maintain” (V.1.69).   Smith refers here to a type of nonmarket goods that almost 200 years later Samuelson labeled “public goods”  (Samuelson, 1955).  Smith seems to opens the door to an argument for provision of public goods that could be used by arts and culture advocates if they effectively make a case for arts and culture as a non-market good or a public good, either as a public good in an of itself such as the parade Samuelson cites as an example, or with regard to the positive externalities derived therefrom (Saunders, 2005).  The art-as-public-good argument was used at the time of the initiation of the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities.   The opening line of the authorizing legislation that established the Endowments reflects the contention that art is a public (or at least collective) good when it asserts, “The arts and the humanities belong to all the people of the United States” (U.S. Congress, 1965/2010). Regrettably, as Wyszomirski  (Wyszomirski, 2004) explains,

finding ways to describe, categorize, and measure the “public good” value of arts activities and cultural products has bedeviled economists, sociologists, aestheticians, and policy analysts. On the one hand, a general consensus has emerged that the full value of the arts and culture is not captured by economic assessments of their status as consumer goods, their price, or profitability. In contrast, neither a conceptual consensus nor satisfactory methods have emerged for expressing the noneconomic, or cultural, value of artistic products or creative services. (p. 5)

Adam Smith’s allowance for the government provision of advantageous public works was taken up neither by Hamilton in Federalist #23 at the time of the drafting of the Constitution nor by Jefferson several years later.

Alexander Hamilton

Hamilton described the scope of government, or its “core functions” thus, “The principal purposes to be answered by union are these — the common defense of the members; the preservation of the public peace as well against internal convulsions as external attacks; the regulation of commerce with other nations and between the States; the superintendence of our intercourse, political and commercial, with foreign countries” (Hamilton, 1787).  Jefferson famously said this of the scope of government in his first inaugural address: “a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government” (1801).

What those who cite Jefferson and the framers need to accept is that we no longer live in colonial times.  People and governments are much more connected to one another than Hamilton and Jefferson ever conceived imaginable. While I’ll address a more pragmatic approach near the end of the series, the next installment will focus instead on the structure of the Constitution and the art of separation.  Stay tuned!

About lindaessig

Linda Essig is Dean of the College of Arts & Letters at Cal State LA and principal/owner of Creative Infrastructure LLC. The opinions expressed on creativeinfrastructure are her own and not those of Cal State LA. You can follow her on twitter @LindaInPhoenix.
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