There are three reasons that arts advocates customarily give for continued and increasing governmental contributions to the arts. The first, oldest, and most traditional (and least used nowadays) is that the arts are a “public good”—that the arts are good for us. The second rationale, which has been increasingly used since the mid-1970s, is that money funneled into the arts by government has a “multiplier effect”; that is, publicly expended arts money helps the rest of the economy. The third is made by comparing arts support in the United States with that of most other industrialized nations, finding that the United States lags behind Canada and much of Europe (and should become more like them).

Each of these arguments is problematical. Who is to say what is “good” for you or for anyone, and what makes it good? There is something highly elitist and top-down about the idea of a public good. The & ...