When Free Markets Fail: An Undergraduate Makes a Conservative Case for the National Endowment for the Humanities


If you have been reading The Way of Improvement Leads Home lately you know two things:

  1.  Donald Trump’s proposed federal budget eliminates funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).
  2.  We have been trying to suggest that this is a bad idea.

Malloy Owen, an undergraduate philosophy student at the University of Chicago, has taken to the pages of The American Conservative to offer a conservative argument for keeping the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Here is a taste of his piece:

Conservatism also allows us to claim that living well is an art cultivated over many generations and not something that each person figures out for herself by herself. The humanities are a living body of reasoning—some ancient and some quite recent—on how to live well. Life without culture is deeply solitary because it forces us to do this sort of reasoning without any help from outside ourselves. The sorts of projects that the NEH and NEA support—from research in the humanities to museum exhibitions to programs that bring Shakespeare plays to rural schoolchildren—give ordinary people access to the history of serious thought about the good. Funding from the two endowments ensures that the old books are still read and talked about; it also supports the production of new works that may find a place in the canon someday.

Many conservatives accept these arguments while arguing that free markets are the best means to spread artistic masterworks across the country. But although markets may be useful for producing and distributing material goods, they are not especially good at regulating cultural production. Good and ennobling art is not always lucrative, and government subsidies are precisely meant to secure goods that society is not wholly capable of securing on its own.

Conservatives are also understandably reluctant to give the state the power to determine what constitutes worthy cultural work. Their arguments are all the more forceful because they can point to numerous cases in which federal grants have supported projects in the arts and humanities that were uninteresting, obscene, or both. As a 1997 Heritage Foundation report calling for the abolition of the NEH and NEA documented in gruesome detail, some funding from these programs goes to genuinely offensive projects.

But the two endowments also support work that conservatives are more likely to consider worthwhile. The NEH funds projects on Marlowe, Machiavelli, and Boccaccio. It has supported invaluable websites like hymnary.org and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. It provided a great deal of the funding for Ken Burns’s magisterial documentary series on the Civil War, and it recently helped to pay for the publication of the 13-volume journals of the Lewis and Clark expedition. For its part, the NEA has backed programs like Live From Lincoln Center, which broadcasts serious music across the country, and Shakespeare in American Communities, which has allowed two million American students to watch Shakespeare plays performed live. An NEA grant helped the Louisiana State University Press publish the then-unknown writer John Kennedy Toole’s novel A Confederacy of Dunces, which has become a conservative favorite. In recent years NEA money has supported new translations of Euripides, Aeschylus, and Homer, among many others.

The range of projects that the NEH and NEA support—from revisionist and progressive work to explorations of tradition—should please conservatives who do not want the government circumscribing the human good within politically narrow definitions. By assigning grants on the basis of artistic seriousness, the NEH and NEA demonstrate their commitment to ideological pluralism.

Read the entire piece here,