The Price of Everything

The three languages of arts and cultural funding

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the public funding of arts and culture will cause political strife. Reasonable people just do not agree on this, and can be surprisingly quick to accuse others of ideological warmongering.

That’s code of course for your own views being sound and sensible, while those of the other side are naïve, selfish, tyrannical, philistine, or just flat-out wrong in a way that is impervious to logic and evidence. It’s almost as if they’re speaking another language.

The Three Languages of Politics is a short e-book by Arnold Kling, a US economist and blogger. It will take perhaps an hour to read, and costs just A$2. Or you can listen to a podcast here. The book is about why intelligent, well-meaning people disagree so much, and so bitterly, about politics. Kling’s thesis is that they are, in effect, speaking different languages.

Kling frames his essay about three political tribes: the left (known in the US as liberals), the right (conservatives), and libertarians. Each views the political world along its own axis of discourse and understanding.

For the left, the political world is viewed in terms of: oppressor – oppressed.

For the right, the worldview is on an axis of: civilisation – barbarism.

For libertarians, the relevant axis is: freedom – coercion.

These axes are largely incommensurable. When one groups sees an issue – say, refugees – through the lens of civilisation–barbarism, and thus as about border protection, other groups do not even register that framework, seeing it instead as about freedom of movement, as libertarians might, or as an issue of oppression, as the left does.

The result is that political discussions become polarised and ill-tempered. Kling offers these three axes as a kind of translation service that he hopes might enable each group to better understand how other groups see and discuss the world.

I think the same claim can be made about arts and cultural funding, which is equally dyspeptic in a similar three-languages way. Following Kling, it may be useful, especially in the shadow of the upcoming budget, to attempt to put one’s self in the mind of how the other side(s) thinks about these issues.

For conservatives, public funding of arts and culture is worthy when it supports the values of civilisation, which means a John Ruskin type view of the best of cultural heritage: museums, galleries, botanical gardens and opera will always do well here. What this group is hostile to are threats against that – barbarism – which come from the transgressive, edgy frontiers of arts and culture.

Those on the left see things almost exactly the other way, valuing the transgressive, edgy work precisely because it stands up for the oppressed, the outsider, the powerless minority view. They don’t see this as barbaric at all, but as a meeting of power against a hegemon, which for them is the real threat.

For conservatives, this is completely baffling. The psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains in The Righteous Mind that there are simply different moral dimensions at work here.

Libertarians tend to be confused by both such perspectives, seeing the real threat coming from coercion, which appears from the left by way of compulsory tax contributions, and from conservatives in the drive to compulsory aspects of support for, say, the cultural canon. They thus find themselves allied with the left in supporting the avant garde, but because of its experimental newness, not its power politics.

They usually hate that aspect. And they support the right in market-facing endeavours, but because of what evolutionary economists call creative destruction, which is the tendency of the market order to generate cultural novelty from within, not from a desire to minimise political activism.

Now these are obviously almost cartoonish simplifications of actually complex and subtle positions, but I think that these axes can help make sense of the level of heat in so many debates about arts and cultural funding.

Take public broadcasting, for instance. For the left – along the oppressor-oppressed axis – it is a near article of faith that a healthy and robust ABC and SBS is necessary to maintain a bulwark against the potentially oppressive forces of commercial mainstream media. It is a necessary countervailing force.

But the right – along the civilisation-barbarism axis – doesn’t see it that way at all. They love some parts of it: Sunday morning shows, ABC Classic, and regional news and talk especially. But they despise the Ultimo productions of stacked Q&A panels and risible youth comedy that seem to represent encroaching barbarian hordes. So for them, the ABC needs to be brought under control.

The libertarians – along the freedom-coercion axis – are the only ones who really want it dismantled. But not because they don’t value what it offers, whether its promise of countervailing media power or its projection of civilising influences. They just don’t like being forced to pay for it.

The problem with a political society that speaks three different languages is that we get easily lost about why we disagree. The challenge is to try and see things from the other side’s perspective rather than continue to shout in our own languages.

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