Cutting Federal Funding for the Arts Wouldn't Kill Them; Might Make Them Better

One bright spot in Donald Trump's very bad, very insane budget plan is his willingness to cut taxpayer-funded culture.


How bad is Donald Trump's budget plan for fiscal 2019? It's a disaster area, which somehow cuts a lot of little-bitty stuff while growing already-bloated federal outlays from an estimated $4.2 trillion this year to $4.4 trillion next year:

Washington Post

Give the president credit, though. He's diverted attention from his overall increase in spending and gigantic increases in deficits by driving critics crazy with proposed cuts to programs and agencies they love, such as the EPA, the Small Business Administration, food stamps (SNAP), and, of course, the National Endowments for the Arts (NEA) and the Humanities (NEH).

From a representative writeup, at Hyperallergic, a newsletter that is "sensitive to art and its discontents":

[Like last year, the budget plan calls for] eliminating the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), among other programs. President Donald Trump's budget proposal includes a spending increase for the military, border security, and the ongoing opioid crisis, with his proposed budget for defense in 2019 swelling to a whopping $716 billion.

Although it's Congress that passes the federal budget each year, and the president's recommendations are merely that, this is the second year in a row that Trump has called for the elimination of the NEA and NEH. Trump's 2019 "Major Savings and Reforms" document calls for slashing the NEA's budget from $150 million in 2017 to $29 million in 2019. The NEH would similarly be cut down from $150 million in 2017 to $42 million in 2019.

The document cites as justification that enough funding exists outside of the federal government to keep the NEA's projects afloat…

We can agree that Donald Trump's budget priorities are stupid at best and philistine at worst. But there's still no question that federal funding for the arts is a bad idea for a number of reasons. For starters, it is true that philanthropic giving for the arts continues to rise. According to Charity Navigator, "total giving to charitable organizations was $390.05 billion in 2016 (2.1% of GDP). This is an increase of 2.7% in current dollars and 1.4% in inflation-adjusted dollars from 2015." Those figures are the most recent and for the arts, things are better still: "Arts, Culture and Humanities saw an increase of 6.4% to $18.21 billion."

And that $18 billion is just for charity aimed at the arts. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American spends around $2,900 on "entertainment," a category that includes movies, museums, concerts, and the like. Whether the NEA gets cut to $29 million next year or stays at $150 million doesn't really matter when you consider the amount of money we're willing to shell out for concerts, plays, galleries, you name it. I can sympathize with individual groups and artists who might see their funding cut, but that's not the same as saying the arts will suffer.

As Jim Epstein argued last year at Reason, federally funded services such as PBS and NPR are actively blocking innovative shifts to the internet and related platforms that make production and distribution cheaper and easier. Watch below:

When it comes specifically to the NEA, there is simply no question that federal funding is unnecessary to keep arts groups afloat. But that's not even the best argument against state-sanctioned culture. Back in 2011, Meredith Bragg and I also argued that

…Publicly financed art is easily censored art. Last December, the National Portrait Gallery almost immediately pulled a four-minute video called "A Fire in My Belly" after complaints from the Catholic League and politicians such as Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who objected to images of ants crawling over a crucifix. It's hard to imagine a private museum so quickly and cravenly pulling an offending piece. But when the taxpayer is footing the bill, the most easily aggrieved among us yields a thug's veto. Indeed, in February [2011], scandalized Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY) even called for getting rid of a 1922 statue in New York City due to what he says is its sexist portrayal of women.

Given my druthers, I'd love to see Donald Trump recall his awful budget and issue a new one that is full of across-the-board cuts, especially to the big-ticket items such as defense, homeland security (really should be renamed the immigrant-removal service or something more honest), and a slew of mostly useless domestic programs that accomplish nothing more than padding the deficit. That's not going to happen, of course, any more than Trump is likely to get his way in terms of cutting the NEA and NEH budgets. But that doesn't mean we can't or shouldn't talk honestly about the likely results of such cuts, either.

Related: "3 Reasons Not To Fund Art with Taxes"