Thursday, July 26, 2012

Economic Goods Are Scarce, Arts Edition

Edwin Booth as Hamlet
Just a couple of days ago, I noted that a recent governor's controversial veto reminds us, among other things, that economic goods are scarce. Today an article comes along that reminds us that the existential fact of scarcity applies to all goods, including cultural goods, such as concerts, ballet, paintings, and plays.

Lyn Gardner in The Guardian suggests that, due to the relative abundance of Shakespeare performances,  Shakespeare productions in the UK should do without government funds for a period of two years. Her suggestion is as follows:
But it's hard to dispute the fact that the dominance of Shakespeare does crowd out new writing and other forms of theatre in Britain. So what to do? My suggestion is not that we should stop producing Shakespeare, but that we should have a brief – perhaps two-year – moratorium on funding his work. Theatres can produce Shakespeare if they want; but they can't spend their subsidy on it.
Now, as I've written in many venues, there are several reasons to oppose government subsidies to the arts as a matter of economic and ethical principle.

The point that most jumped to mind, however, after reading Gardner's article was that she understands the fundamental economic dilemma. Because of the scarcity of goods, if a theater produces Hamlet, it cannot at the same time produce something else, say The Pitmen Painters. Politicians and arts bureaucrats are foolish if they think that scarcity does not apply in the arts. Every dollar of arts subsidy a theater uses to produce a particular play means the production of another play is forgone. At a broader level, every dollar taken from taxpayers to fund the production of some work of art means the taxpayer must do without some economic good that they could use to satisfy another end.

Gardner's essay also reminds us how government arts policy affects arts culture through subsidies. Such subsidization is not aesthetically neutral. It lifts some artists and works up and pushes others down. 

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