Ira Stoll on Mitt Romney Versus the National Endowment for the Humanities

In a recent interview with Fortune, Mitt Romney named the National Endowment for the Humanities on a list of “programs I would eliminate.” Something about that is dismaying.

For one thing, it shows an instinct for to go for the capillary rather than the jugular. The appropriation for the National Endowment for the Humanities in the 2012 federal budget is $146,000,000. The overall federal budget is about $3,795,500,000,000. The spending on the humanities is not one percent of the federal budget. It’s not a tenth of a percent of the federal budget. It’s not a hundredth of a percent of the federal budget. It’s all of four one-thousandths of a percent of the federal budget. It’s a rounding error. As an NEH fact sheet points out, on a per capita basis, its agency costs “barely more per capita than the cost of a postage stamp.” 

Okay, one might say, it’s a symbolic point—you’ve got to start cutting somewhere, so why not start with welfare for historians? The history professors, museum trustees, and historical archivists don’t have as powerful a lobby as the ethanol producers or the senior citizens or the pharmaceutical companies, so in this case there might be some chance for actual success in achieving the budget cuts. 

Why not start cutting here? Well, to start with, writes Ira Stoll, at least for those of us on the center-right of the political spectrum, the NEH folks are our guys. The list of NEH Jefferson Lecturers looks like the bylines in Commentary or on the Wall Street Journal editorial page: Leon Kass, Donald Kagan, Bernard Lewis, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Robert Conquest. The winners of the National Humanities Medal, another NEH program, include Richard Brookhiser, Myron Magnet, Victor Davis Hanson, Richard Pipes, Ruth Wisse, James Buchanan, Fouad Ajami, Lewis Lehrman, Alan Kors, Harvey Mansfield, Thomas Sowell, and Midge Decter. These are Romney’s natural allies, not his enemies. 

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