Good and Plenty: The Creative Successes of American Arts Funding

Good and Plenty: The Creative Successes of American Arts Funding

Good and Plenty: The Creative Successes of American Arts Funding

Good and Plenty: The Creative Successes of American Arts Funding


Americans agree about government arts funding in the way the women in the old joke agree about the food at the wedding: it's terrible--and such small portions! Americans typically either want to abolish the National Endowment for the Arts, or they believe that public arts funding should be dramatically increased because the arts cannot survive in the free market. It would take a lover of the arts who is also a libertarian economist to bridge such a gap. Enter Tyler Cowen. In this book he argues why the U. S. way of funding the arts, while largely indirect, results not in the terrible and the small but in Good and Plenty --and how it could result in even more and better.

Few would deny that America produces and consumes art of a quantity and quality comparable to that of any country. But is this despite or because of America's meager direct funding of the arts relative to European countries? Overturning the conventional wisdom of this question, Cowen argues that American art thrives through an ingenious combination of small direct subsidies and immense indirect subsidies such as copyright law and tax policies that encourage nonprofits and charitable giving. This decentralized and even somewhat accidental--but decidedly not laissez-faire--system results in arts that are arguably more creative, diverse, abundant, and politically unencumbered than that of Europe.

Bringing serious attention to the neglected issue of the American way of funding the arts, Good and Plenty is essential reading for anyone concerned about the arts or their funding.


Many of my conservative and libertarian friends find government funding for the arts unacceptable. They note that after the socalled “Gingrich revolution” of 1994, “we were not even able to get rid of the NEA.” They speak of the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) as the lowest of lows, the one government program that has no justification whatsoever. If such an obvious basket case could survive a conservative Republican Congress, how we can ever hope to rein in government spending?

Most of my arts friends take the contrary political position. They assume that any art lover will favor higher levels of direct government funding. To oversimplify a bit, their basic attitude is that the arts are good, and therefore government funding for the arts is good. They find it difficult to understand how an individual can appreciate the arts without favoring greater public-sector involvement. They lament how American artists are underfunded and undervalued by the state, relative to their western European counterparts.

Why are the two sides to this debate so far apart? How can two groups of people, each well intentioned, look at the same world and see such a different reality?

That people so frequently disagree is a quandary for social science. We might expect that when a person encounters a disagreement with someone, he or she recognizes that the other person, if sufficiently intelligent and honest, is as likely to be right. To paraphrase Garrison . . .

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