Creative Accounting

David Runciman

  • Artist Unknown: An Alternative History of the Arts Council by Richard Witts
    Little, Brown, 593 pp, £22.50, March 1998, ISBN 0 316 87820 0
  • In Praise of Commercial Culture by Tyler Cowen
    Harvard, 278 pp, £18.50, June 1998, ISBN 0 674 44591 0

Wilt ‘the Stilt’ Chamberlain, the former American basketball player, has three distinct claims to fame. First, there is the basketball, of which modest art he was, as his nickname suggests, a preternaturally gifted exponent. Then there is his much repeated claim to have slept with over ten thousand women during the course of his playing career, a boast which has generated fascination, disapproval and scepticism in equal measure, and transformed him, if such a thing is possible, into the Georges Simenon of the American locker-room, the object of a whole new kind of attention. And third, there is his improbable place at the heart of modern American political philosophy. It was, peculiarly, Wilt Chamberlain on whom the libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick chose to hang his full-blown critique of the interventionist state. The argument runs as follows. Imagine a society of perfect distributive justice according to any model you happen to prefer, in which everyone possesses precisely what they ought to possess for justice to prevail. Now imagine what happens when someone like Chamberlain comes along, the most exciting basketball player in the world (this was 1974, when Chamberlain was the most exciting player in the world, and his extra-curricular activities were a secret between him and a few thousand others). Large numbers of people want to watch him play, and are quite happy to pay $1 for the chance to do so, knowing that for every dollar they hand over he gets to keep 25c. No one in this just world minds the loss of a dollar, and no one thinks it unjust that some of it should go to the man who induced them to part with the money in the first place. During the course of a season, one million people pay to see Chamberlain play. He ends up with $250,000. He is now considerably better off than he would have been under the original model for the perfectly just society. Injustice has been born out of a series of perfectly just transactions. So, Nozick wants to know, what do you plan to do about it?

This has proved a surprisingly difficult question to answer. To interfere seems to mean constraining the perfectly reasonable choices that individuals must be allowed to make for themselves; not to interfere looks like accepting that there is nothing we can do about grotesquely unequal distributions of income; pleading that the real world is more complicated than this seems evasive. But what happens if you turn this argument on its head? Imagine a society perfectly just by pure libertarian standards, in which individuals are assured of all their manifold rights against the state, in which private property is (literally) ring-fenced, in which the feckless face the prospect of starvation and the charitable the thrill of banding together to save them from that fate. Now imagine that someone quite unlike Wilt Chamberlain comes along, an artist of immense but complicated gifts who is quite unable to persuade anyone to part with so much as a dollar to enable him to live by his art. You might expect such a person to pose few problems for the libertarian, who is after all generally quite sanguine about the fate that awaits individuals in uncharitable neighbourhoods who are unable to help themselves. Those who disapprove of the principle of taxation are supposed particularly to disapprove of being taxed to pay for someone else’s art. In fact, art is one of the few things that can be expected to induce a few pangs of conscience in a libertarian society. Human beings come and human beings go, winning or losing in the game of life, but art is by definition something else. To be indifferent about whether or not human beings produce things of enduring artistic value looks perverse even by libertarian standards. And yet it is impossible to argue that an economy of individual preferences, of the kind that the libertarian cherishes, would guarantee all true artists their living. Some, inevitably, would suffer from the indifference of the people among whom they lived, even if such people included many wealthy patrons. These artists would have a justifiable claim on public support, provided by the taxpayer.

No libertarian, however, would be able to sleep at night in the knowledge that public officials, whose ostensible function was simply to keep him safe in his bed, were also giving away his money to creative beggars. Perhaps the only thing worse would be the thought of the artists, with their notorious disregard for private property (why else would they be in this predicament?) making the decisions for themselves. The least unpalatable option would be to set up a body of neutral and relatively powerless bureaucrats to distribute a carefully controlled sum, kept near to the minimum, without starving the artists. Even then no libertarian could believe with consistency that a group of bureaucrats would be better able than individual members of the public to judge artistic merit. So this body would have to fund a good deal of bad art along with the good, to demonstrate that they were not in possession of superior sensibilities, and that no private passions were being indulged. Not a lot of money, reluctantly given, inexpertly handed out, thinly spread, in order to protect and promote the highest standards of excellence. How very unlike the home life of our own dear Arts Council.

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