Saturday, December 16, 2006

Subsidies and The Supposed Right-Wing Intellectual Deficit

(As will become apparent, there is a sort of pun in the title of this blog which inevitably arises from the complaints made by conservative commentators such as that to which I have provided a link below.)

Every so often, I feel compelled to wearily answer the neo-conservative, pseudo-Darwinist suggestion that the natural way of things demands that theatre should respond to the market economy, and accordingly, if it cannot survive on the free market, it would be better to atrophy and die.

Really, this is tiresome silliness. For example, let's look at the idea that theatre's “natural” state is to be commercially viable. The fact is that, historically, no theatrical activities which posterity has considered “important” have ever been totally self-sustaining. From the time of classical Athens, when the support of wealthy benefactors to pay the costs of the productions along with the Periclean theoric fund (to subsidize playgoers) was necessary, through to Elizabethan England, when Shakespeare's company depended on the patronage of the crown and various wealthy supporters (the equivalent of subsidy rather than corporate sponsorship, because the decision was not made—or at least not entirely—with regard to concerns about whether the support would “enhance profit”), through to any current leading theatre company, the necessity of subsidy to abet the creative communal focus embodied by theatre has been accepted and embraced. Theatre is a communal art form, and its presence always has been vital to the health of any literate community, a point which may be demonstrated by a long string of historical examples.

Now one response to this point is to argue, along the lines suggested by Adam Smith, that it is the “invisible hand of the market” which best expresses the will of the community, and that in such a perspective, arts subsidies must be considered an abomination. Indeed, this reasoning runs, the only real resistance ever offered to the will of the market economy comes at the hands of so-called “elitist intellectuals.” In short, the suggestion is that, protecting any aspect of a culture from the rough and tumble of a free-market economy is inherently elitist, and is a notion fostered purely by “left-wing cabals.” Inevitably, at this point, the finger points toward universities: what are they teaching there, anyway? (And here, of course, is where I feel the two sides of my career moving together to be galvanized into a coherent defence). Along these lines, there have been a number of recent suggestions, in the United States especially, that academia at large has been insufficiently respectful of conservative ideas

For a sterling example, of this sort of argument, CLICK HERE.

But this suggestion of “unfairness” is based on specious reasoning. No natural, nor any other sort of law suggests that there should be any absolute apportionment of right- and left-wing ideas in academia. Rather, plausible ideas are presented for consideration and —here we smile gently at those cherish Adam Smith’s reasoning— must be considered in the rough-and-tumble of free debate. The reason that theories of a flat earth do not have currency nowadays is not because of any conspiracy against such ideas, but simply because they do not stand up to sustained logical scrutiny. Similarly, if neo-conservative ideas have less currency in academia, it is probably because their flaws are more easily exposed upon any deeper consideration.

Now, to be fair in this matter, rather than relying on any biased characterization, let’s turn to an actual advocate of neo-conservative philosophy. For example, consider this quotation from a neo-conservative explication of the free-market philosophy of Frederich von Hayek, one of the central thinkers in the neo-conservative pantheon:

“The price mechanism of the free market serves to convey information about supply and demand that is dispersed among many consumers and producers and which cannot be assembled or coordinated efficiently in any other way. The abysmal failure of command economies, or of command devices in mixed capitalistic economies, vindicated the prediction originally made by Ludwig von Mises in 1920, and later promoted by Hayek, that only a free market could coordinate an efficient allocation of resources into productive industries. Hayek thus shared with Hume a profound conviction that 'we should be sensible of our ignorance.’” (

This is a good example of the half-wittedness (I'm afraid I feel I must choose between that pejorative and “disingenuousness,” which seems to be worse because it implies moral turpitude rather than merely incompetent thinking) of the “free-market” advocates. In this model, the monetary unit (for example, the dollar) is taken to represent a perfect embodiment and expression of the will, the determination of the people. But they aren't thinking things through. Because they need to answer: why, in any realistic ethical model, should the person with more dollars in his wallet have an opinion inherently more valuable than that of the person who has less dollars in his wallet?

This is what I mean by “half-wittedness.” There is, in such neo-conservative assertions, a total refusal or inability to recognize that linking political franchise to buying power entails a momentous ethical problem: that capitalism inevitably ensures an inequitable and insensible distribution of financial means with regard to individual identity, and that this inequity is an abomination in the sight of democratic principles (not to mention any sensible awareness of how the common weal might not be identical to personal profit). Why, for example, should the opinion of Bill Gates inherently matter more than the opinion of, say, Jared Diamond, the writer I alluded to in a previous posting, who wrote Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse? Gates spent most of his career discovering ways of harnessing the current discoveries about computer programming for maximum personal profit; Diamond spent most of his career understanding how the world has found itself in the environmental crisis it is now in, and in trying to recognize what history has to tell us about how to avoid ultimate catastrophe. Gates has his reward for being shrewd and a little ruthless in finding himself a multi-billionaire; but should we also offer him proportionately more say in how our society should be run than Diamond, who, ultimately, has concentrated all his brilliant intellect on just that very question? Who should have more of a say in the future of our civilization? The richer or the more thoughtful person? Those who believe with a faith that seems quasi-religious, in the clarity and purity of the free market, will say Bill Gates. Those who believe that the convictions of individual persons, and not their relative spending powers, should determine social policy, will answer differently, for they are looking for ways for individually non-profitable and yet socially-beneficial ideas to be heard above the roar of commercialism.

In short, there can be no doubt that completely state-controlled economies, such as the Soviet Union, amply have shown their limitations; but so, again and again, have the unfettered activities of free-market economies. The reason that academics tend to favour social-liberalism is not that they believe it to be a perfect answer for our problems, but merely that they believe it to be less bad than any other system heretofore suggested.

I will return to the question of public subsidies for the theatre in a future posting. I bet you can't wait.

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