"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, March 17, 2017

It’s Pledge Drive Again–Why Broadcasting And The Arts Should Be Left In Private Hands

The Sistine Chapel, Uffizi Palace, and the great works of Bernini would never have seen the light of day without the great donors of the Renaissance. It was up to the Medicis to see to it that Michelangelo was paid to finish his ceiling, up to the great French families in the court of the Sun King to finance the construction of Versailles, the Catholic Church to build the Vatican, and minor Polish, Hungarian, and Czech aristocrats to assure the longevity of their cultures.

There was no 'government' to speak of, and the affairs of state and the administration of national interests was the responsibility of the palace.  Kings and queens decided when to go to war, how to assure the goods and services necessary to support the monarchy and the aristocracy, and what to do with the peasantry.  The French Revolution changed all that, representative democracy spread through much of Europe, and government became the institution to manage both the affairs of state and national interests.

In the United States government was an add-on to the great Westward Expansion of the United States.  The Union cavalry helped pacify the Indian tribes resisting white settlements after Lewis and Clark had opened the West; but the platting and development of these lands was private.

Entrepreneurs built railroads, ports, and roads to service their new commercial enterprises.  Only after the fact did government help out by writing codes and ordinances to help promote business enterprise.

Government has been increasingly assumed to be the sine qua non of modern society.  We increasingly rely on it for our well-being, our economic enterprise, and our arts and culture.  Decades of liberal assumptions about the role of government have increased its size, exaggerated its influence, and created a bureaucratic behemoth which is incapable of efficient administration

Trump populism is the most vocal, angry, and insistent voice against the pervasiveness of big government since Ronald Reagan.  Reagan supporters who applauded the President’s statement, “Government is not the solution; government is the problem” had no idea how their ideological commitment to private enterprise, individualism, and small government would flourish in 2017.

Donald Trump is a revolutionary conservative who challenges the very principles of government. 

Rather than assume at least some role for government in American affairs, he says, “Show me.”  Prove to me that government programs have been designed with a specific, legitimate objective in mind; that these programs have met their objectives; and that the private and non-governmental sectors cannot do the job equally as well.

Few government programs can pass that muster; and the Departments of Energy, Education, Commerce, Labor, Agriculture, and most of State are likely to be drastically reduced in size and influence if not eliminated under the new Administration.

Why, then, is it a surprise that the Trump Administration proposes to eliminate support for the NEA, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, many programs of social welfare, and all of foreign aid?  It should not be, for when scrutinized with the harsh but objective lens of results, impact, and efficiency, all of these programs could and should be cut.

Why should a dirt farmer in Arkansas have to pay for Edwardian dramas on CPB?  Or Sesame Street? Or David Attenborough’s documentaries on wildlife?  If Meals on Wheels does little to promote or encourage a move out of poverty, and is only a display of well-meaning good will, then why should any taxpayer dollars be invested in it.  If billions of dollars of foreign aid go into the pockets of African dictators, why should such aid continue? f humanitarian aid to Ethiopia, Somalia, and South Sudan simply encourages corrupt regimes to fuel their territorial wars, why should we continue to give it?

The only sensible way to reduce unnecessary government expenditures is to review department by department, line-by-line items and subject them to the above-mentioned criteria: Has the program in question correctly identified goals and objectives? Are they realistic? And can a government agency provide the services better and cheaper than non-public sources?

The arts are a special case.  Everyone agrees in principle that support of the arts and artists is essential.  After all, the arts are a culture’s highest expression of identity and the most sophisticated answers to life’s essential questions.

Yet, with public support of the arts comes censorship.  Should the government use general tax revenues to finance an exhibition by an artist whose works may offend the majority – e.g. Andres Serrano’s ‘Piss Christ’, or most of Robert Mapplethorpe’s homosexual works? Or should it support the most restrict forms of conceptual art that few people outside the artistic community understand or value

If art is transcendent, apolitical, and universal designed to stimulate and provoke, then there is every reason in the world to fund works by these artists.  If, on the other hand the NEA’s charge is to promote ‘acceptable’ American art, then it is well within its mandate to limit the off-center.

Image result for serrano piss christ

Government should never be the arbiter of public tastes; but because it is responsive to electoral influence, it cannot help but be.  Real, independent, unique, and creative art can only flourish in the private sector.

What about National Public Radio?  What a gift, say coastal liberals who are delighted to have a network with no intrusive advertising and for which they have only to pay little or nothing at all. They get all the evolved, literate, elite shows that they want for next to nothing while taxpayers in Nebraska, North Dakota, and Arkansas ante up.

‘Pay Up’ is not just the mantra of  insensitive, conservative populists.  It is – or should be – the operational phrase guiding all public and private investment.  Why should viewers of the latest Vermeer exhibit at the National Gallery not pay full freight for the privilege?  Or the viewers of ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ or ‘Downtown Abbey’ not pay directly or via advertising for the pleasure?

Does NPR or CPB serve a specific, well-defined national objective?  Does ‘Downton Abbey’ serve the national interest? Raise the cultural IQ of the nation? Provide definite intercultural insights? Or is it simply a high-toned soap opera better suited for Oprah’s network?

The last thing in the world that any progressive wants is a National Endowment of the Arts run by the Trump Administration.  God knows what they would fund.  And no conservative would ever be happy with a Bernie Sanders liberal arts agenda focusing exclusively on race, LGBT, and ethnicity.

‘National interest’ is not so xenophobic as it sounds.  It is important to determine for what and how taxpayer dollars are spent; and given the profound political and social divisions in the country, there will never be agreement of not consensus.  Public investments should be restricted to those programs with a proven track record of efficiency and results.  The more indefinable and vaguely-defined programs should be eliminated from the public treasury.  If students want to study ‘Manifest Destiny – The History of White Exploitation and Nascent Indifferent Capitalism’ – they can pay for it at Oberlin, not UT.

Meals on Wheels, Head Start, and the NEA are not sacrosanct institutions, and they must be scrutinized and put under the cost-benefit microscope.  If they do not serve the immediate and discernible national interest, then out they must go.

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