Waxing Theoretical Part 3: The art of separation

This is the third in a series of posts exploring the roots of arguments that oppose government funding for the arts.  It is excerpted from a longer exploratory essay on the topic and is essentially a thought exercise.  My goal is to assist the arts advocacy community in developing effective tools to support that funding, so I was driven to explore, in depth, the arguments in opposition.  In this installment, I look at the structure of the Constitution.  If you’ve been following this series, you know that the discourse here is somewhat more academic than the typical blog post, but hopefully useful.  At the end of the series, I will post the full list of references.

Robert Dahl (1956) explains that the U.S. Constitution constrains government so as to prevent tyranny.  Dahl also notes that the framers were as much or more influenced by Hobbes’s view of man in a state of nature as Locke’s in that without constraint on government tyranny, man will be tempted to pursue his desire for absolute power (Dahl, 1956). [I use the masculine noun and pronoun in discussion of these early thinkers to be consistent with their own writings with the understanding that humankind includes both “man” and “woman.”]  Ostrom  (2008), too, asserts that “Hobbes’s theory of sovereignty and the American theory of a limited constitution are based on some common initial assumptions” (p. 94).  Pateman (1985) also argues that it is  “Hobbes’ uncompromising individualism [that] leads him to the extreme solution of absolute rule and unconditional political obedience” (p. 37).  On the other hand, sovereignty cannot be absolute as Hobbes contends but rather must be checked and limited while simultaneously constraining naturally selfish actions.  McSwite (1997) writes that “it was the regulation of the inherently selfish nature of human beings…that was the basis for the governmental arrangements that each [Federalist and anti-Federalist] favored” (p. 90).

Ultimately, the Federalist framers of the Constitution effected compromise in developing what they termed a “Limited Constitution” (Federalist #78, Federalist #81).   Dahl  (1956) describes “the “Madisonian” theory of democracy [as] an effort to bring off a compromise between the power of majorities and the power of minorities, between the political equality of all adult citizens o the one side, and the desire to limit their sovereignty on the other” (p. 4).  Walzer  (1984) describes this compromise as “the art of separation” that liberalism draws between the social and the political world.  “The separation of civil society and political community creates the sphere of economic competition and free enterprise, the market in commodities, labor, and capital” (p. 316).  Thus, freedom to trade, as well as to worship, assemble, and create, are preserved.  These freedoms, and most especially the freedom of assembly, have supported creative innovation in the arts and culture sector (and others) since that time.

A strong constitutional argument against government involvement in the arts can be found in the doctrine of enumerated powers, especially as it relates to federal support via agencies such as the National Endowment for the Arts (Boaz, 1995).  Although the purpose of the doctrine embodied in Article 1 Section 8 of the Constitution is to differentiate between the functions of the federal and state governments (Diamond, 1976) it also serves as a reminder that government itself is limited.  In the case of this article, the central national government is limited to two of Adam Smith’s three concerns: national defense and institutions supporting commerce (see Part 2), including, I note, the protection of the intellectual property of authors of the “useful Arts” (U.S. Constitution, I,  8) taken here to mean, as it did in the 18th century, products of engineering rather than fine arts.  Education was and continues to be considered the province of the states.

Levi and Sacks (2006) argue that, in Lockeian fashion, government legitimacy results from “quasi-voluntary compliance and, better yet, contingent consent” from its citizens (p. 1).  Ultimately, according to the liberal (small “el” liberal) argument, state action without complicit consent could be considered illegitimate.  Boaz (1995) writes, “The bottom line of political philosophy, and therefore of politics itself, is, “Who is going to make the decision about this particular aspect of your life: you or somebody else!” No matter what the philosophical debate, keep your eye on the bottom line: Politics is about the individual’s relationship to the state, pure and simple” (p. 541).   The extension of the liberal (small “el”) argument here, as it relates to the argument against government intervention in the arts sector, is that the smaller the scope of government, the more likely it is to achieve the contingent consent on which its legitimacy rests.  That is not to say that government funding for the arts is not legitimate.  Rather, the probability of consent is reduced when the scope of government is diversified across multiple, sometimes competing, sectors.

The lion’s share of governmental support for arts and culture in the U.S. is derived indirectly, largely through elements of the tax code, and administrated by third party arts organizations.  Zimmer and Toepler  (1999) assert that “This feature is rooted in the strong resentment of “big government” and the assumption of a crowding-out of private initiative by an ever growing state apparatus” (p. 42).    Walzer  (1984) argues that the boundaries drawn by liberalism (e.g. between civil and political society or between church and state), what he calls the “art of separation,” protect both liberty and equality.  In making his argument he uses the academic freedom of universities as an example of the way in which liberalism’s separations support freedom of expression.  A similar argument can be made about the arts.  This argument contends that by keeping the government separate from the arts, artists are more free than if they consented to government constraints.  Boaz (1995) makes this separation argument as well, writing, “It is precisely because art has power, because it deals with basic human truth , that it must be kept separate from government. Government… involves the organization of coercion. In a free society coercion should be reserved only for such essential functions of government as protecting rights and punishing criminals” (p. 542).  The arts are not completely separated from the state, however, so controversy periodically arises around art that some consider to be objectionable.

It is my contention, however, that it is not necessary for the government to control arts and culture in order for it to fund arts and culture.  Although I disagree with Public Choice economist Tyler Cowen on most things (including the supremacy of the market), I agree completely with his recommendation, as expressed in his 2006 book Good and Plenty, to provide direct subsidy to artists in nascent and underfunded genres at more than arms length from government intervention in the production of that art.  He writes, “Direct subsidies have worked best when accountability is absent, when the marketplace is failing to spot many of the best artists, and when the state can act as a strong-willed funder of idiosyncrasies” (p. 134).  Those idiosyncrasies are also known as innovation and originality, and since they exist outside of the market, require non-market (i.e. state) support.

Some may find the content of such innovations objectionable.  The “objectionable content” argument is based in neoconservative ideology that I will take up in the fourth installment in this series, to be posted later this week.  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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