Art Funding: Does the Constitution Matter?

Pres. Trump sparked outrage on the left (again) with budget proposals to slash funding to the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities.

Defenders of federal spending on the arts immediately kicked into high gear touting its virtues. Here’s just one example.

President Trump has taken an ax to one of the best investments the federal government makes year in and year out. Rather than the short-sighted point of view that the arts are a frivolity or a luxury not worthy of federal funding, this Administration fails to recognize the well-documented fact that arts and culture industries generate $22.3 billion in revenue to local, state and federal governments every year, and create 4.13 million full-time jobs, generating $86.68 billion in household income.”

I’ve responded to a couple of my progressive friends by pointing out that no matter how much value they may find in federally funded art, it remains unconstitutional.

That argument always falls flat.

It’s not that they necessarily disagree with me. In fact, most can’t make a constitutional argument one way or another, beyond maybe smugly asserting “general welfare.” The fact is they really don’t care. They always turn the discussion back to their utilitarian arguments and generally act like I must be some kind of Neanderthal who hates culture.

But if the constitutionality of federal arts funding doesn’t really matter, then how can the constitutionality of Trump’s actions matter?

Google “Trump unconstitutional” and you will find 100s of articles bemoaning the unconstitutionality of the president’s immigration policies, among other assertions that various other Trump actions violate the Constitution.

Now my friends on the left, herein lies your problem. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t assert, on the one hand, that the federal government must remain limited, and on the other hand, assert that constitutional limits don’t matter when you happen to support a given policy. If it’s OK for the feds to unconstitutionally fund the arts because it’s for the benefit of society, then by-God it’s OK for the feds to unconstitutionally enforce a Muslim travel ban because it’s for the benefit of society.

(By the way, my friends on the right, this equation works both ways.)

“But,” my progressive friends cry, “Banning Muslims isn’t good for society!” Well, that’s your opinion. I don’t happen to think “Piss Christ” exactly advances society either. Nevertheless, that’s not the point. The point revolves around the authority and power of the federal government.

The Constitution was intended to enforce specific limits on federal authority. As James Madison put it, “The powers delegated to the federal government by the proposed Constitution are few and defined.” When you begin expanding those “few” powers to achieve your utilitarian purposes, you open the door to expand them for any purpose whatsoever – even the ones you don’t like.

Constitutional limits on federal power can’t only count when they stop things you don’t like. They have to count all the time. James Madison understood this. He vetoed a federal infrastructure bill he supported because he understood the Constitution did not authorize the federal government to fund highways and canals.

In their quest to advance their numerous utilitarian agendas. Americans have turned a federal government of few and defined powers into one of virtually unlimited authority. It shouldn’t surprise anybody that a “limited” government that can fund art can also implement travel bans, spy on its own citizens and limit free speech.

Federal arts funding doesn’t even warrant a footnote in the federal budget. In the big scheme of things, it’s not a big deal. Nevertheless, the political momentum that drives its defenders derives its force from a tidal wave that has obliterated every constitutional bulwark. Selective enforcement of constitutional principles has rendered America’s founding document a dead letter.

Thomas Jefferson said, “In questions of powers, then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.”

Americans have pulled off those chains. Maybe we should start putting them back.

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