A reader asks Megan if she supports government spending on the arts and sport. She has a pithy answer: "No". And of course I have some sympathy for her point of view. In an ideal world this might indeed seem like frippery and even in the world we endure it can often be a transfer from poor to rich. In other words, in the UK, lottery funding for Olympic rowing or the Royal Opera House is to some extent a tax on the poor and/or the gullible for the benefit of the already better-off-than-most.
But looked at differently, I'd wonder if these monies are really so very different from the state spending cash on the artistic and physical education of school kids, with the difference, of course, that the fruits of this expenditure are not limited to children, even if part of the price of this is that people who could afford to pay more to support sport or the arts do not have to. But to the extent that we agree that a healthy population is a net good, there seems a decent argument for the state, if it chooses, to make generous provision for the mental and physical health of the populace. And of course it's very wrong to presume, as some do, that opera or classical music is beyond the wit, ken and interest of working class folk. (Of course Megan doesn't make that argument. She doesn't write for The Guardian.) But since, for a number of reasons, we don't enjoy the American culture of philanthropy, it's not altogether unreasonable for the state to offer some assistance. (Might we enjoy American levels of philanthropy if we abolished, say, the Arts Council? Perhaps, but I fear not. The evidence from sport, which has, whether one approves of this or not, benefitted enormously from lottery funding, suggests that the private sector was not capable of fulfilling this role.)
This assistance is, in any case, often pretty modest; almost every Scottish author I can think of, from JK Rowling (Scottish-based) to Alasdair Gray or William McIlvanney has been assisted by the Scottish Arts Council at some point. That means they've been given, at the start of their careers, a couple of thousand quid to help them finish a book. Yes, this is public money and it might be nice if there were more private patronage available, but as used to be said if ifs and ands were pots and pans there'd be no call for tinkers... The public has, in any case, been pretty well served by this allocation of taxpayers cash. And it's not as though state sponsorship of the arts is anything new. No public patronage no Aeneid.
Or, to put it another way, if you asked me whether more good would come from spending an additional £250m on the arts and sport or on the National Health Service I'd have no hesitation in plumping for the former. It is vastly more likely to do some good.
Granted, I'm biased in favour of sport and the arts but it's still hard to think of a more harmless example of public spending. On a theoretical level I suppose Megan has a someway compelling point and I doubt the NEA would be her first spending target but this is still one area where though we may lose a little according to one line of principle the collective gain is rather greater and, in any case, comes at a pretty low and more than affordable price.