A robust public discussion (my favorite kind!) is taking place over the issue of public arts funding. Reporter Lynn Stewart of San Diego 6 aired a story last week pointing out that the City of San Diego had budgeted $300,000 for art at two fire stations, while at the same time fire stations were being shuttered in rolling “brownouts” to save money and taxpayers are being asked for more in sales taxes. In response, Mayor Sanders has asked the San Diego City Council to suspend public arts funding in the capital improvement budget.
The community is now engaged in a vigorous and thoughtful examination of the role of public art, and whether it is a luxury that should be scuttled during tight times, or a necessity to a community’s quality of life.
The problem is this: it’s a discussion on the WRONG topic.
This discussion shouldn’t be about the merits of public art. Public art adds to our lives, creates the opportunity for reflection, enjoyment, even healthy disagreement. It focuses your thinking toward bigger ideas and issues. I’m all for it.
The discussion should be about the merits of TAXPAYER FUNDED public art, which focuses on the true role of government and the use of our tax dollars to pay for it. As a Libertarian, I believe the choice to fund art should be given back to the community in the most democratic way possible: by letting the public hold on to more of its tax dollars and allowing individuals to decide what type of public art to fund.
This must be part of a thoughtful examination about the role of government. Government should provide essential services and NO MORE. But essential services aren’t all that easy to define. Let’s focus on the City of San Diego. Sure, we all agree on police and fire protection being essential. What about lifeguard service? I say no. It’s your choice to go into the ocean, so you accept the risk. Libraries? I love libraries but they aren’t essential either, certainly not in the age of the Internet.
To the essential list I add water and sewer services, and infrastructure construction and maintenance. That’s it. A second tier of services can be outsourced: trash pickup and maintenance for starters. The rest should be provided by private and/or nonprofit organizations, funded by us through the tax dollars we have back in our pockets to do so. The linchpin is that we MUST take that obligation seriously and contribute a fair share to whatever we consider a priority. Some will choose public art. Great!
The beauty of it is that we get a direct vote, and we gain a much greater influence on the type and quality of services. For example, major disaster response services are offered both by FEMA, a federal government agency, and by the American Red Cross and other nonprofits. If FEMA screws up, I can’t pull my funding as a taxpayer. If the Red Cross screws up, I send my money to the Salvation Army or another organization. FEMA has zero incentive to improve its services. The Red Cross and other nonprofits must listen to its donors (the public) and respond with improved services, or risk a loss of funding. Anyone would argue that the Red Cross, Salvation Army, and many other nonprofit organizations do a far superior job of providing disaster relief than FEMA.
It’s the mission creep of government that is causing our fiscal crisis, not public art. Fewer services means fewer employees, means far lower pension obligations and far less ongoing expense. Wouldn’t you rather have your dollars going to public art of YOUR choosing?
It is then incumbent upon me to help fund other services I believe to be important. It becomes my choice with my money, not decisions forced upon me and funded by me against my will. With this comes the responsibility and obligation to contribute.