No, $1 Invested In Art Doesn’t Generate $182, Despite What Activists Claim

Donald Trump is Right to Cut Funding for the National Endowment for the Arts

Art is a bad investment: Donald Trump is right to cut funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and Public Broadcasting.

There.  I said it.

And no, I’m not just some grouch who hates art.  I love art.

In fact, I’m one of those stereotypical failed actors who ended up studying law.

On top of that, I actually think there’s a strong case to be made for funding public art—especially when it comes to government buildings.  For example, I’d be willing to kick in more money if it meant the death of architectural brutalism.

Who wouldn’t?

boston's city hall is an example of the architectural movement known as brutalism. it's ugly
Boston’s City Hall is but one example of the architectural movement known as “brutalism”, which is characterized by the exposed concrete frame, and inverted design. Given that we have to look at public buildings for decades, and sometimes centuries, I think investing in some damn gargoyles is money will spent.

But let’s be clear: that argument’s based on aesthetics, not economics.

When it comes to down to the bottom line, the left is wrong: art is a terrible investment.  Here’s why.

Funding Public Art Is A Bad (Financial) Investment

The left says funding art makes economic sense for two main reasons.

First, they say that art has a stellar return on investment.

In fact, according to Patricia Harrison, the president and CEO of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, “public media is one of America’s best investments.”

Artist David Byrne reiterates this assertion, claiming that the $741 million the federal government spends on the NEA generates $135.2 billion in spin-off investment and economic activity.  For evidence, he cites a study conducted by the America For the Arts.

That’s right, according to the left, every dollar invested in the arts is really worth 182 dollars.

With a return on investment that high, it’s shocking that Wall Street hasn’t already bought up every single local theater in America.

And why not?  It’s because the claim is totally bogus.

This is just a classic example of the broken windows fallacy—this is why Economics In One Lesson, by Henry Hazlitt, should be required reading for every leftist.

What is the broken windows fallacy?

Pretend you accidentally smash someone’s window with a baseball.  Now what?

He has to replace it, obviously.  This means he has to buy a new window pane, it costs $1,000.  This enriches the hardware store owner, who now has another $1,000 to spend.  In turn, he buys a jacket for $500 and a new watch for $500.

See how that $1,000 has now turned into $3,000 in economic activity?  And the cycle just keeps going.

But of course, this doesn’t make any sense, since the original $1,000 would’ve been spent on something else, rather than the broken window (maybe the owner would’ve bought the jacket for himself).

When you look at both sides of the equation, there is no economic gain (except you did lose a window, which reduced accumulated wealth).

The same logic applies to funding the arts.

Sure, when the government spends millions on a local theater, this will leverage spending around said theater.

However, that money came from somewhere: whoever paid the tax has less to spend on their end, so it’s an economic wash.

Likewise, the economic impact would’ve been the same if the government spent the money on welfare, or buying balloons—it’s simple wealth-redistribution, not wealth-creation.

That’s an important distinction to make.

Their second argument is that investing in art makes society more creative as a whole, and that we collectively benefit from a more creative workforce.

This is also a bad argument, because of something called domain-specificity: the human brain can become more creative in one area of life, without there being any meaningful spillover effects into other areas.

For example, an engineer who goes to the theater will not necessarily be any more creative than one who enjoys Sudoku puzzles.

And regardless of that, even if local art made people more creative, it would be much more cost-effective to invest in some sort of government-funded Netflix program, than run hundreds of local theaters.

Either way you cut it, art shouldn’t be justified in terms of money—if we support it, it should be for the pursuit of beauty, truth, and immortality.

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