Overshadowed by the fiftieth anniversary of Medicare and Medicaid this year was the fiftieth anniversary of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
On September 29, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act that created the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). Said Johnson, “We in America have not always been kind to the artists and the scholars who are the creators and the keepers of our vision.”
The NEA “promotes, and strengthens the creative capacity of our communities by providing all Americans with diverse opportunities for arts participation.” The agency partners “with state arts agencies, local leaders, other federal agencies, and the philanthropic sector.” The NEA has an annual budget of about $146 million.
The NEH “serves and strengthens our republic by promoting excellence in the humanities and conveying the lessons of history to all Americans.” Its grants “typically go to cultural institutions, such as museums, archives, libraries, colleges, universities, public television, and radio stations, and to individual scholars.” The NEH also has an annual budget of about $146 million.
The Endowments together have distributed more than $11 billion through more than 200,000 individual grants over the course of 50 years. But according to NEH chair William Adams, it’s “not just about the money.” It “means something” when the state chooses to support arts and culture:
We are having an argument in this country about the scope of government. But I’m not afraid to say that I think that scope must include this fundamental concern for culture. And the interest is not just financial. It’s also symbolic, and I think that’s one of the most important aspects of the history of these two agencies. They’ve been able to represent the public commitment to the historic and cultural legacy of the country.
Adams is right: we are having an argument in this country about the scope of government. But Adams is wrong to think that this scope should include socialized art and culture.
There are three simple reasons why the NEA and NEH should neither be funded by government nor exist as government agencies.
Funding the NEA and NEH is blatantly unconstitutional. Nowhere in its list of enumerated powers delegated to the federal government does the Constitution grant the government the authority to subsidize art and culture. During the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, delegate Charles Pinckney of South Carolina introduced a motion calling for the new central government to subsidize the arts. It was overwhelmingly rejected. Although the Constitution does authorize the national government to issue patents and copyrights, it does not follow that inventors and writers were to be given subsidies.
Funding the NEA and NEH is an illegitimate purpose of government. The only possible justification for government action is in prosecuting and exacting restitution from those individuals who initiate violence against, commit fraud against, or violate the property rights of others. All government functions beyond judicial and policing functions are illegitimate. Once the premise is accepted that the government should subsidize art and culture, no reasonable argument can be made against the government’s funding any activity. And of course, government’s funding of anything inherently involves government control, with all the harmful things that that always entails.
Funding the NEA and NEH is simply a transfer of income from one American to another. Funding for art and culture is basically providing welfare for cultural elitists. It is always immoral for the government to take the resources from some Americans and redistribute them to other Americans — no matter how good or noble the cause.
The fiftieth anniversary of the NEA and NEH also serves to reminds us that Republicans — even the “strong” conservative ones — are utterly devoid of any philosophical objections to unconstitutional federal agencies, illegitimate purposes of government, and income-transfer programs.
The annual budgets of the NEA and NEH increased from just under $3 million initially to more than $150 million each by 1989. Republicans rarely if ever criticized the agencies until then. It was not until it was revealed that the NEA was funding the artwork of people such as Andres Serrano, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Annie Sprinkle — artwork that many Americans considered to be blasphemous and pornographic — that Republicans really voiced any objection to the federal government’s subsidizing art.
The NEA’s current chair, Jane Chu, says that “the ensuing battle, which dominated the media for more than five years, resulted in lawsuits by artists, slashed Endowment budgets, and a fundamental change in one way the NEA awards grants.”
When, for the first time in 40 years, Republicans took control of both Houses of Congress in the 1994 midterm election, there was a renewed attack on the NEA and NEH (and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting). Although NEA grants to individual artists were eliminated (but not individual writers), the Republican-controlled Congress failed to eliminate those, or any other, federal agencies.
When, for the first time in 50 years, Republicans controlled the White House and both Houses of Congress for more than four years under George W. Bush, the agencies were not eliminated as they easily could have been.
The attitude of Republicans and conservatives toward agencies such as the NEA and NEH is the same as their attitude toward medical grants by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), programming by NPR, and actions undertaken by Planned Parenthood. It is only when the NIH doles out grant money for outrageous things such as determining the HIV risk of female-to-male transgender persons, NPR’s blatantly promoting liberal causes, and Planned Parenthood’s being publicly exposed for apparently selling fetal tissue for profit that Republicans and conservatives get upset.
Libertarians get upset at these things as well, but not necessarily because of the nature of what the government is funding. Because government subsidies of art and culture, like government subsidies of medical research and “health services,” are unconstitutional, illegitimate, and immoral, libertarians maintain that these agencies should be abolished at once, all of their grants canceled, and all of their employees laid off. The government should not subsidize art and culture for the simple reason that it should not subsidize anything. Funding for art and culture should be strictly voluntary. Ordinary Americans should not be forced to provide welfare for cultural elitists. Art and culture in the United States will continue to thrive without grants from the NEA and NEH, just as they did for almost 200 years before Congress created those agencies.